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The Unexpected Vernacular of Health

The design industry is taking steps to ensure healthcare settings are approachable, refined, and clinically relevant.

01.01.2018 by Ryan Ramos

It is interesting that the word “hospital” makes up the majority of the word “hospitality.” Many experiences in both places are similar: you check in, you wait, you get your room, sometimes you are fed, you check out, and then you are billed. 

What separates one hotel from another? What makes a five-star hotel different compared to a one-star hotel? It is the entire experience, from the customer service to the impression the space leaves upon you. It is also about the memories and interactions within the space that are remembered and taken away. 

Patients in today’s evolving healthcare world are a lot like hotel guests. Their perceptions, experiences, and feedback have never been more important—or influential—driving not just patient choice and loyalty but also critical ratings and scores that can ultimately affect clinicians and/or facility reimbursement.  

Healthcare organizations understand that high-quality clinical care is necessary but that care alone can be insufficient as patients also seek great service, interior spaces, and experiences. They also understand that healthcare design differs from hospitality design due to unique requirements such as cleanability, durability, clinical workflow efficiency, and other human factors. Despite these constraints, there is an expectation from providers and from their patients that spaces are refined, approachable, and both aesthetically and clinically relevant.

So how do we, as designers, design healthcare facilities that address clinical requirements while creating desirable, holistic, human experiences? That is where the vernacular of creating approachable, refined, and clinically relevant spaces should be infused in the way we design for healthcare environments.

human-to-human connection
Healthcare is one of the few industries in which human-to-human touch is necessary, from physical interaction during examinations to the personal transfer of information from clinician to the patient and family. These interactions are vital to facilitating critical clinical information, empowering compliance, and supporting positive outcomes. We need to think about how these touch points can be leveraged and remembered as positive experiences, empowering clinicians to better serve their patients and in turn allow them and their families to actively take control of their health journeys. 

meeting needs of varied users
Nearly everyone is a healthcare consumer. Similar to designing for hospitality spaces, the challenge for healthcare is designing interior spaces and furniture for an individual’s needs as well as the needs of the larger population. Healthcare design must acknowledge and support a wide range of socioeconomic, education, physical, and health factors. We must equip ourselves with rigorous research, tools, and processes to understand the factors that lead to solving real problems for the greater whole and to accommodate the personalization of space. 

Human-centered design is critical to create an exceptional experience in a space. Understanding the complex needs of those who use a space is important to the design process to ensure their needs are met. In a healthcare setting, it could be creating a solution for a patient that has a difficult time getting up from a seat, how the number of seats are defined to improve the clinical workflow, or designing a light source that is easy to reach, clean, and doesn’t disturb the patient.  

Infection control is paramount in a healthcare space. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 20 patients develop an infection while in the hospital, and medical errors and hospital-acquired infections are among the leading causes of death in the U.S. Cleanability standards dictate materials in a healthcare space, which means that all furnishings and materials must stand up to institutional disinfectants and cleaners. This can pose a challenge to find materials that meet these standards yet are still aesthetically appealing and comfortable—not institutional.

Designers need flexibility to facilitate creativity to design healthcare spaces. Healthcare design can achieve plurality: spaces that are clinically relevant, refined and approachable, and convey a healthcare organization’s brand values. 

Healthcare environments should never feel institutional or oppressive but instead convey an emotive quality that instills confidence of great care. A vernacular that includes “approachable,” “refined,” and “clinically relevant” should define the future of healthcare spaces. 

Ryan Ramos is the director of industrial design at Steelcase Health and Steelcase Education. Steelcase Health is a leading provider of healthcare spaces that deliver greater connection, empathy, and well-being to create solutions for healthcare environments. Steelcase Education is a top supplier of education spaces for schools, colleges, and universities to create the most effective, rewarding, and inspiring active-learning environments for students and educators.​