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the hospital

Interior shot at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Ontario Wednesday, November 6, 2013.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

This is part of The Globe's months-long series on the challenges facing Canadian hospitals. All of our published material has been reported with permission from staff.

If you're ever feeling down and looking for a good pick-me-up, head to your local hospital. Sure, health care institutions usually aren't a source of good cheer, but watching confused visitors try to navigate the labyrinth of corridors in order to find their destination could soon have you chuckling. Or just shaking your head.

For instance, are you looking for a patient's room on a particular wing? No problem. Just go down the hall, take your first left, go down the stairs – not the first set of stairs, but the second – follow the hallway until you see a red door. Don't go in the door. Pass it, and then take your third right, then your second left. Stop and get a sip of water from the fountain. Don't worry, you're almost halfway there!

It's not the fault of hospitals that they sometimes seem to resemble mazes designed to infuriate those who enter. At least, not entirely. Many hospitals across Canada, such as Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre where I have been spending a lot of time as part of The Globe and Mail's ongoing hospital series, were constructed in a different era. Wings and floors were added as the patient population grew. And at that time, the concepts of patient-centred design, functional navigation and evidence-based architecture hadn't yet been invented. The important thing was having doctors and nurses who could provide care to those who needed it. Why should it matter if patients and family members could easily find their way around?

These days, that thinking has been turned on its head. Medical studies show that the ability to quickly and easily navigate a hospital, in addition to other important design elements such as good signage and ample natural light, can improve the efficiency of staff, help patients recover faster and reduce the occurrence of dementia – an often-deadly condition that affects many elderly individuals. Some of the new hospitals that are being built in Canada are taking some of those important design principles to heart (although critics point out that many newly constructed institutions still miss the mark of truly good evidence-based hospital design).

Spend any amount of time in Sunnybrook, and you will undoubtedly hear more than one person asking a volunteer, anyone wearing scrubs or anyone with a name tag how to get to where they want to go. After two months of spending time at the hospital, I am getting the hang of it, but still nowhere close to understanding how to get around the sprawling facility.

It's the challenge many institutions face: trying to provide innovative, quality care in an aging, out-dated building. It's hardly impossible. Regardless, it's tempting to imagine what our health-care system would look like if there was ever enough time, money and political will to find a way to redesign hospitals with patients in mind.

Follow me on Twitter: @carlyweeks

What are your thoughts? Do you find hospitals difficult to navigate?

We want to hear about health care in your community: What works, what doesn't, and what you think we should do about it. Share your experiences – and ideas for change. Follow @Globe_Health, tweet with #thehospital or email to join the conversation.