Kaiser Permanente’s Garfield Center Combines Tech, Common Sense, Lurking Helper Robots

Want to improve nurses’ efficiency? Or help patients get oriented to your hospital? Or make your surgeons less disoriented? There’s an app, gizmo, or design principle for that.

hospital monitor

Experiments in “teledermatology,” augmented reality orientation for patients, and real-time location systems to improve nurses’ efficiency–these are among the ideas at various stages of development at the Garfield Innovation Center, a Kaiser Permanente-affiliated hub in San Leandro, California. Opened in 2006, the 37,000-square foot testing facility is “basically a mocked-up hospital,” says Sean Chai, Senior IT Manager of KP’s Innovation & Advanced Technology Group.

A “sophisticated sandbox,” Chai also calls the center, rattling off a list of projects that he or his staff is in some stage of imagining, envisioning, or testing. Augmented reality apps, for instance, could help make entering a hospital for the first, second, or tenth time a less intimidating experience. “Imagine you walk into the hospital, you’re overwhelmed,” and you want to get to an appointment in a certain department. Just whip our your smart phone, and “we can add another layer of information,” says Chai: ” ‘We know you’re here to see Dr. Pearl, he’s running a bit late. Can you wait in the lobby?’ ” And then a map or grid could direct the patient to the appropriate area.

Another of the ideas kicking around the Garfield Center is creepily Big Brother-esque, but could potentially improve hospital efficiency. By outfitting a nurse, say, with a small tag emitting a signal, Chai’s researchers can “get in-room level accuracy” to track the movements of the nurse. “With that insight, hopefully it will allow us to improve our design. In some cases, you might need to place supplies in adjacent areas, so you don’t have to walk half a mile to get that wheelchair.” (Presumably that particular design insight could be struck upon without the help of high technology, but the principle still holds, as Chai and colleagues seek to fine-tune hospital ergonomics.)

Sometimes, it’s not just efficiency but lives that are at stake. The Garfield Center has been focusing on making sure that all operating rooms employ “same-handed design,” meaning each room is designed more or less the same way. “Even if blindfolded, the surgeon will always know where the patient’s head is,” Chai says by way of explanation.

Believe us, you always want your surgeon to know where your head is.


And of course, no hospital of the future would be complete without a courier robot. So the folks at Garfield made one. Don’t believe us? Videographic proof:

Just make sure your Old Glory policy is paid up. (Sam Waterston totally called this one.)



About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.