Universal Health Symbols Provide Direction for Many in Hospitals

New symbols remove language barriers, provide better access to care

    • December 26, 2005

Filled with confusing language and directional signs, hospitals can be very challenging places for people to navigate. Just imagine how much more difficult it is for people who don't speak English. An organization devoted to helping health care facilities overcome language barriers has developed 28 universally-recognized graphic health care symbols depicting important hospital destinations from Registration and Surgery to Billing and Infectious Diseases.

"While universal symbols have long helped people navigate complex environments like airports and train stations, we are just now beginning to address this important issue in health care," said Yolanda Partida, director of Hablamos Juntos ("We Speak Together"), a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), that consults with hospitals on the most effective ways to provide language services for non-English speakers. "With 336 languages spoken in the United States, it has long been a challenge to develop new ways to approach this issue in health care facilities beyond multilingual signs and interpreters."

With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Hablamos Juntos worked with the Society for Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD) to develop and test the 28 symbols.

Three hundred people from four different language groups—English, Spanish, IndoEuropean and Asian—had input into the design of the symbols. According to Partida, some symbols tested better than others. For example, they had more success with symbols that represented the pharmacy and radiology than they had finding one symbol that testers could agree on for cancer or infectious disease.

The symbols also were tested in four hospitals across the country: Somerville Hospital in Massachusetts; Saint Francis Medial Center in Grand Island, Nebraska; Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta; and Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco. The results were overwhelmingly positive for the testers' ability to recognize the symbols and in their ability to reach their destinations more quickly and easily.

Seventeen of the 28 symbols were understood by at least 87 percent of the multilingual testers; testers arrived at their destinations faster using symbols than when they relied on word signs to direct them; and nearly 9 out of 10 testers said they could understand more than half of the symbols.

Hablamos Juntos and SEGD hope that hospitals nationwide will consider incorporating the symbols into their signage and they are taking their message to hospitals and facility design groups across the country. They have produced the Universal Symbols in Health Care Workbook, a "how to" guide for hospital CEOs, administrators and other health care professionals. To view and download the workbook and symbols, visit www.hablamosjuntos.org or www.segd.org

"Access to health care doesn't just happen when you walk through the door of a health care facility," said Pamela Dickson, RWJF deputy director, health care group. "Universal health care symbols will be encouragement for many who until now may have been intimidated or confused about finding their way through the health care maze, to seek the care they need with confidence."

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Hablamos Juntos is a national program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and administered by the UCSF Fresno Center for Medical Education & Research, a major educational and clinical branch of the UCSF School of Medicine. UCSF Fresno represents a unique medical education and physician training program that is a model for community and university partnership. UCSF Fresno faculty and medical residents care for the overwhelming majority of the area's underserved populations at partner hospitals and clinics.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. For more than 30 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime.