So hospitals need to look conspicuously safe, in every respect. “To reassure the public, we need to show a strength of response,” says Suzanne MacCormick, global healthcare lead at WSP. “We need to be talking about how we manage infection prevention and control as part of our business-as-usual, and how we are managing the differences in this virus. People need to see visual cues that we are doing everything we can. We’ve put in extra layers of cleaning but we need to make that very visible. Equally, there needs to be exemplar behaviour from the staff to encourage compliance from the public.”
Every premises has had to install notices informing people of the measures that have been taken to protect them, and how to comply. But this isn’t enough.
“The problem with signage, says MacCormick, whether reassuring or instructional, is that we cease to notice it after we’ve seen it a few times – it becomes part of the landscape. This is also why it is so hard to change ingrained habits. The subconscious mind is much more powerful than the conscious mind and constantly searching for clues to make sure we’re safe, but it also determines our behaviour – most of the time, we’re on autopilot.” She has visited hospitals where the corridors have been decked with one-way and no-entry signs: “So you are always supposed to walk on the left-hand side of the corridor. But when you watch the staff, they take no notice of the signs because they no longer see them.”
MacCormick has a clinical practice focusing on the neuroplasticity of the brain and works with patients who have a psychological component to their illness. “Once learned, all behaviour is done subconsciously,” she explains. “You’re going to walk the same route because you’ve always walked it, even if there’s a sign saying otherwise. So we need to bring people back to the conscious state, make them aware of what they’re doing and nurture them to do it more effectively.” One technique is “pattern interrupt”, changing something in the environment to jolt the brain and disrupt automatic behaviour. Opening doors, for example, is something we learn at an early age and then continue to do subconsciously. “We know that you push a handle down, twist a knob, pull a looped handle and push a flat plate,” says MacCormick. “If we try to pull a looped handle only to discover it requires pushing, we’re snapped into reality. This interrupts our learned behavioural pattern and demands conscious thought, so we can use this technique to challenge and change behaviour.”