In 2023 Fiona Young started the new year in the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital emergency department. Her experience is a direct reflection of the outcomes of the NSW Health Elevating the Human Experience initiative, which considers patient, family and caregiver experiences through a constellation of seven key enablers foregrounding principles of kindness and compassion.

I’d never been to a hospital emergency room before and based on stories from friends and family it didn’t sound pleasant. Relentlessly long wait times with many other people, in stereotypical, ageing hospital spaces.

So, it was with trepidation that I went to the Emergency Department (ED) in the first week of 2023 with an inflamed elbow. My bag was packed with a book, snacks, my laptop and charger, and a change of clothes in case I didn’t come home that day. I walked in, and as expected, saw a number of other people waiting. The decor was also as expected. I checked in at the counter and the Clerk directed me to sit in the orange seats.

I sat down and got out my book for the long journey ahead. But very quickly a Triage nurse saw me, took my blood pressure, asked a few questions, and then instructed me to sit in the purple seats. 

I relocated and got my book out again. Within minutes, Liam, a staff member came up to me. He introduced himself as the Patient Experience Officer, welcomed me, showed me where the bathrooms and phone charging station were, asked if I wanted the induction video of the ED process sent to my phone, and invited me to reach out to him if I needed anything or had questions. This was unexpected! The physical surroundings were an ageing hospital waiting space, but that interaction felt like I was in a five-star hotel! I heard Liam chatting to others in the waiting room and the atmosphere felt friendly and convivial. 

Royal Prince Alfred Hospital ED induction video

The next few hours involved coming and going between the waiting room and a series of other areas with a range of different medical staff for blood tests, ultrasounds, x-rays and examinations. Each time I returned to the waiting room, I’d overhear Liam warmly greeting and conversing with patients. He was on a first-name basis with everyone there.

The doctors decided to put me on an IV drip for intravenous antibiotics. So that day I had one infusion of antibiotics, and I returned the next two days for more (monitored by the Hospital in the Home team). Each time I left and returned, Liam and I had a friendly exchange. 

My elbow healed nicely and I’m ever so grateful to the entire team at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital ED for their collective intelligence, professionalism and kindness. There are so many different interactions and personnel involved as a patient and so many unknowns that this experience could easily have been daunting, tense and overwhelming. 

Retrospectively, I realise that even if the physical surrounds had been shiny, slick and new, the experience could still have been impersonal and transactional. However, having the friendly face of a Patient Experience Officer – someone who was looking out for you and seemed to care about your experience – made a big difference. The interactions with Liam and the nurses were so warm and friendly that rather than being daunted by this place, I felt comfortable and a sense of belonging. 

So even though my Oleacron (elbow) bursitis was an unfortunate start to 2023, I found the overall hospital experience enlightening and inspiring. It highlighted that conversation, interaction and empathy, social behaviours that take place within space, are equally if not more important than the spaces themselves. 

Royal Prince Alfred Hospital ED induction video (children’s version)

POSTSCRIPT: In researching for this piece, I discovered that NSW Health have a guidance document called Elevating the Human Experience – Our guide to action for patient, family, carer and caregiver experiences. It addresses experience as a constellation of seven enablers: Leadership, accountability and governance; Culture and staff experience; Collaborative partnerships; Innovation and technology; Information and communication; Measurement, feedback and response; and Environment and hospitality. The Beryl Institute, a global community of healthcare professionals and experience champions committed to transforming the human experience in healthcare, awarded NSW Health the 2022 Organisational Innovation Award for this work.

Fiona Young is an architect and researcher at Hayball Architects in Sydney, Australia. She is also one of the co-authors of Integrative Briefing for Better Design.

This article is part of a series of guest articles on the Integrative Briefing for Better Design website, which covers themes relating to integrative briefing and design for transformative change. If you would like to contribute a 500-word guest article to this ongoing discussion, please email Fiona Young.