Design Collaborative: Bringing Design to the Bedside

July 1, 2007

By Robert Nieminen 

Designed with patients, family and medical staff in mind, the OpusTM Overbed Table from Nurture by Steelcase offers simple, but thoughtful solutions to a critical component of patient room furniture.

With the case for evidence-based design firmly taking root in the healthcare industry-where demonstrated improvements in clinical outcomes and patient satisfaction, among other results, are becoming benchmarks for success-it doesn't take much to realize that the typical, institutional hospital room is already obsolete. The tide in healthcare is turning, and the flexible hospital room centered around caregiving and patient comfort and control will be the environment in which people will choose to seek medical attention in the future.

It is no wonder then, that furnishings for healthcare facilities are reflecting this trend. But in the competitive field of medicine, talk is cheap. Products designed for the patient room must not only be beautiful and comfortable, they must also be functional, durable, intuitive and, of course, cleanable.

For these reasons, among others, the first order of business for Nurture by Steelcase was to spend time in healthcare facilities doing some observation before launching its award-winning OpusTM Overbed Table at NeoCon® this past June, according to Alan Rheault, director of product development for Nurture.

"While studying the patient room, it became very obvious that the most important component of the room aside from the bed was the overbed table," explains Rheault. As a result, Nurture decided that the overbed table needed to be rethought in order for it to become a successful addition to the existing line of Opus furniture.

Nurture had practitioners in the field test its prototype table to ensure that it met the needs they identified during their observations and to prove to medical staff that the company was committed to considering the needs of the patient, care provider and other partners in care, as the company's mantra suggests.

"When we first started talking to architects and designers, we were getting grilled with questions to see if we really knew our stuff or if we were an office manufacturer trying to do healthcare," admits Rheault. "We really felt like we were going through a rite of passage. People appreciate that we're doing our homework."

But the research the company had conducted during the years prior to its official launch in 2006 were only part of the equation in the development of the overbed table concept. As it turns out, some additional on-site research of a more personal nature provided some valuable insight into the table's final design.

Rheault's wife has worked in the medical field as a nurse for more than 20 years, and while she and her colleagues offered plenty of feedback, or "free consultancy," on the ideas he had been working on with Nurture, it wasn't until Rheault was hospitalized for vertigo that his eyes were opened to solutions to some of the design challenges in developing the Opus table.

"In that experience," he recalls, "I had nothing else to do but think about the overbed table and how to make it better." So through observation as a user, Rheault noticed that he tended to move the table until it banged into something. "It was a clue to me from a design standpoint to make sure that the table could handle getting banged into things without damaging it."

He also noticed that spills tended to occur as the table collided against the bed rail, for example, and as a result, cup holders were integrated into the design to prevent such accidents from happening. Rheault also frequently found himself trying to pull the table in closer to him, while at other times, the nurses or care providers were pulling the table away. To address this problem, the Opus table actually features two top surfaces: one stationary at standing height, ready for care providers, and the other a height-adjustable patient surface with non-handed concaved shape and soft corner radii for patient comfort.

"Another key thing Nurture has learned in our healthcare research over the last few years is that infection control is really a guiding force behind selection of furniture," notes Rheault, "so Nurture wanted to make a product that could handle repeated cleanings."

Rheault's initial thought for the Opus Overbed Table before being admitted into the hospital was to have a trim edge around the top of the table. "I thought it was a good solution because it could handle being bumped into things," he says. However, while in the hospital, he found himself either picking at the trim on the table or noticed that the edge of the table was being trapped under the bed rail as it was being moved. More importantly, it was constantly being scrubbed down. "So if there is any opening in the seam, eventually moisture will get into it and separate the materials and cause problems with bacteria," explains Rheault.

Through these findings, Nurture designed the table to be highly durable by the use of appropriate plastics acting as bumpers, and edges that can't be picked at by restless patients. The tabletop surface is made of thermofused material with no visible seams, so it can be easily cleaned.

"The overbed table is so critical to the patient and care provider experience," concludes Rheault. "We feel the Opus Overbed Table brings significant design innovation and functionality to a place where it matters most-the bedside."

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