How Design Thinking Brightened a Hospital: A Practical Case Study

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Rankings, work abroad


Rankings, work abroad

Harsh artificial lighting, long melancholy hallways, sterile-smelling air – hospitals can be downright gloomy. The atmosphere in many hospitals mirrors the sickness of the patients filling their wards. But it doesn’t have to be this way – some hospitals challenge this perception through modern, innovative designs.

Research has shown that a hospital’s amenities may be more important than clinical quality in determining which hospital patients select. A sleek, modern look could increase patient flow, bringing in more revenue. More importantly though, hospitals renovated with innovative design thinking have fewer infections, better therapeutic outcomes, reduced pain, and shorter hospital stays.

In his 1984 paper “View Through a Window May Influence Recovery From Surgery”, Roger Ulrich compared two sets of patients, one with “tree views” and the other with “wall views”. Patients with the brighter, more interesting “tree views” required shorter hospital stays, less medication, experienced fewer post-surgical complications, and reported a more positive experience.


Case Study: The Rotterdam Eye Hospital

The Rotterdam Eye Hospital shows that with design thinking in mind, hospitals can be transformed into warm, welcoming spaces, according to the Harvard Business Review. Over the past ten years, through trial and error and a great deal of innovation, hospital managers have transformed the Rotterdam Eye Hospital into an award winning space that integrates sleek design with quality and safety.

The team adopted a four-step approach to the transformation:

  1. Start with the end-user

Design thinking starts with the end user – the team approached design with the patients’ perspective in mind. As an eye hospital, you can imagine that most patients at the Rotterdam Eye Hospital are afraid of losing their sight. Patients enter the hospital with high levels of anxiety, so the team’s main priority was to reduce fear; this objective was central to the design process.

  1. Look for inspiration

Before implementing changes, it’s important to learn from what others have already done. The Rotterdam Eye Hospital team looked to other health care centers, and even supermarkets and airlines for inspiration. Modeled after the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn and KLM airlines, the team adopted just-in-time inventory practices, increasing efficiency and reducing waste by forecasting demand to receive goods only when they’re needed. The team also took inspiration from the World Association of Eye Hospitals and the European Association of Eye Hospitals.

  1. Implement changes incrementally

After observing practices at other institutions, its time to put plans in motion. Since it’s impossible to predict the results of an experiment, changes should be implemented slowly and incrementally.

After their fact-finding exercise, the Rotterdam Eye Hospital team began developing experiments modified from practices at other institutions. They tested experiments on a small-scale and if they worked, other departments naturally got on-board and the practice spread. Most changes were relatively inexpensive, but all contributed to the goal of fear-reduction. One powerful example is the hospital began sending children colorful animal print T-shirts before they came to the hospital. When they arrived, their doctor would be wearing a matching animal button, which built a sense of comfort and familiarity right from the start.

  1. Learn from failure and adapt

Even if an innovation has worked elsewhere, there are any numbers of reasons why it might not translate to another context. Sooner or later an experiment will fail – the true test is how the team learns from that failure. In one experiment, the Rotterdam Eye Hospital team tried sending taxis to pick up patients, thinking this would eliminate some of the stresses of getting to an appointment. Realizing it wasn’t working, since taxis got stuck in the same traffic jams; the team abandoned the idea to try a new approach.  They knew when to pull the plug when something wasn’t working, and when to run with something that had potential.



The team at the Rotterdam Eye Hospital has worked hard over the past decade to innovate and reinvent the patient experience, and it’s paid off substantially. Hospital stays have shortened, with only 5% of procedures requiring an overnight stay; patient intake has risen 47%; customer satisfaction scores 8.6 out of 10; even the employees are happier. Reinventing hospitals with design thinking and the patient experience in mind can not only result in a more pleasant patient experience, but it can cut the hospital’s bottom-line, increase revenue, and solidify their reputation as an industry leader.

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