Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson, who welcomes patients and visitors at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre Information Desk, says "people are often stressed, confused, or anxious when they arrive, and we have a chance to turn the experience around for them." (Photo: UHN)

Everyone is familiar with the challenges of navigating new spaces. These challenges are amplified in healthcare settings, as patients and visitors may be feeling unwell, upset, anxious or in pain.

A welcoming, approachable face can make a world of difference to a person's comfort level.

At Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, Andrew Johnson is often that friendly face.

Andrew has been working as a Patient Management Centre Representative at the Princess Margaret Information Desk for about two years, helping patients and visitors find their way through ongoing renovations with the help of navigators from the Volunteer Resources Department.

Andrew sees helping patients navigate as an opportunity to really impact the patient experience during what is often a stressful and difficult time.

"We create defining moments for our patients and visitors during their healthcare journey," Andrew says. "People are often stressed, confused, or anxious when they arrive, and we have a chance to turn the experience around for them."

Health Literacy Month Logo  

Assessing the ease of navigation at UHN

October is Health Literacy Month, and this year the UHN Patient Education & Engagement team led groups of staff, students, volunteers and UHN Patient Partners through an assessment tool which helps organizations identify facility factors and barriers to accessing information, care, and services.

One of the Institute of Medicine's 10 Attributes of Health Literate Organizations involves providing "easy access to health information and services and help finding the way in facilities."

At UHN, the aim to become a more Health Literate Organization led the team to focus on assessing navigation throughout our hospitals through the lens of health literacy.

Small groups did walk-throughs of each of our patient care sites, assessing ease of navigation. This included scoring the presence of directions related to arrival and departure, entry and lobby wayfinding support, accessible, user-friendly signage and maps to elevators and speciality services, and availability of staff and volunteers to help.

While each site presented unique findings related to facility size, age, and construction, themes were consistent across UHN. Assessments of signage varied, in some cases assessors commented there was too much signage that may confuse visitors, while in other areas, not enough to help with wayfinding. Almost all who did the assessment, though, noted that there is a clear effort from staff to help patients navigate, and the value of staff and volunteers being approachable and available.

Cluttered wall at elevator
Visual clutter can make it hard for patients and visitors to see important wayfinding signage. (Photo: UHN)

Everyone has a role to play

While the Information Desk staff and Volunteer Navigators are key players in supporting patient wayfinding, all members of TeamUHN can make an impact on patient experience when it comes to navigation.

"All UHN staff have a role to play in noticing cues, body language, and moments when a patient is in need of assistance and stopping to help," Andrew says. "I will approach a patient or visitor, introduce myself, and kindly ask if they need assistance.

"I ask open-ended questions to get more details on where they need to go."

Sometimes staff are afraid to stop to help in case they won't know the answer. Simply helping patients and visitors find their way to the elevator they need or the information desk can have a huge impact and show compassion and caring.

Aside from stopping to assist patients, there are other ways TeamUHN can help patients navigate our spaces:

  • Check your resources to be sure that all handouts, emails, appointment cards and other ways of communicating to patients and caregivers have clear instructions and current details (entrance and elevator names, clinic or unit names and locations, and phone numbers).
  • Do a navigation assessment in your area. Check that signage is current, accurate, visible, and accessible. Reach out to the Facility, Management, Planning Redevelopment and Operations (FM-PRO) if you need to add or change signage in your area.
  • Reduce visual clutter, such as the number of posters, signs, flyers in your area. Take down expired or unnecessary items that may make it more difficult to see wayfinding signage.
  • Learn your way around! Take a walk on your break, or come in to work through a new entrance or stairwell. Take note of signage and department names, so that you can help people to know what to anticipate when giving directions (for example, when someone asks where to pay a bill, you can tell them to look for "Patient Accounts" or "Cashier."

Tips for patients, families and visitors
Andrew suggests planning ahead as much as possible before coming to the hospital to help reduce stress. One way to do this is by signing up for myUHN Patient Portal to see appointment details ahead of time. This way you can have them with you on your mobile device or print the details.

Other ways patients and visitors can better navigate at UHN:

  • Visit the UHN website before an appointment to see maps and directions and clinic details.
  • Pick up a Patient Services Directory near the hospital entrances, elevators or in the Patient & Family Learning Centres.
  • Try to arrive early to give time to comfortably find your way and get help if needed.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help! At some of our larger sites, Volunteer Navigators may be available to escort you to your appointment.  
  • Share your feedback. If you noticed information on instructions given to you are incorrect or unclear, let the care team know so they can correct the details for future patients.
If you are interested in assessing the ease of navigation to your area, or learning the full results of the Health Literacy Environmental Assessment for your site, please reach out to the UHN Patient Education & Engagement Program at​
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