Home Sweet Hospital

Feb. 21, 2012
The healthcare design industry does its part to improve patient outcomes by bringing a touch of home into the hospital.

Healthcare facilities have long used the luxury of single-patient rooms as a marketing tool, but according to the 2010 edition of the Facility Guidelines Institute’s (FGI) Guidelines for Design and Construction of Health Care Facilities, single patient rooms are no longer a luxurious upgrade—they’re the norm in new hospital design and renovation.

An FGI Research committee-commissioned study found numerous benefits associated with single-patient rooms, including improvements in patient care, a reduction in the risk of cross infection and greater flexibility in operation. The study also describes benefits in privacy/noise abatement, support for patient-centered care, fewer room-to-room transfers, flexibility with adaptable acuity and spatial separation to mitigate cross-transmission of pathogens. The "first costs" of a single-patient room were found to be higher when compared with multi-patient rooms, but the benefits to safety and the comfort of the patient over the life of this room help balance out the upfront costs.

So now that we’ve established the likelihood you’ll be designing a single-patient room, what are the current trends in healthcare design?

Like single-patient rooms, this design element isn’t necessarily a trend anymore—it’s now an expectation.

“In 2011 we saw sustainability become pretty mainstream throughout the industry—it’s a vital part of healthcare design,” says Shelia J. Bosch, director of healthcare research at Gresham, Smith & Partners. “In 2012 and beyond, architects, engineers and interior designers will discover and adopt even more innovative design strategies that further improve the relationships between people and the planet.”

Low maintenance, easy-to-clean materials continue to be readily adopted, especially in regards to larger surface areas, such as floors. “You want the flooring material to be very low-maintenance without a lot of chemicals, but easy to maintain and keep clean,” says Ken Bowman, interior designer and manager of the Interior Design department for Earl Swensson Associates (ESa) Inc. “There’s been a shift more to no-wax products because of the issue with the chemicals and being able to get in to maintain those floors.”

The aesthetics of the physical environment can influence how patients view the level of care they receive. With the advent of value-based purchasing, driven largely by recent healthcare reforms, the patient experience will become an important component of hospital reimbursement.

“There’s convincing research that demonstrates links between people’s perceptions of the physical environment where they receive care and their perceptions of the quality of care they receive,” Bosch explains. “Generally, if people perceive the space to be nicer, they will rate the quality of care to be higher as well.”

“Patients and family members respond to what they can see and touch,” says Elisa A. Worden-Kirouac, senior healthcare interior designer for Gresham, Smith & Partners. There are numerous products on the market that are less institutional and more familiar in appearance, such as flooring products that mimic wood and furnishings that project comfort while remaining easy to clean. Likewise, woven fabrics that might have been problematic in the past due to their propensity to harbor bacteria and dirt are now returning to patient environments, thanks to new textile technologies that inhibit bacterial growth.

Artwork is also an important component in the design of modern patient spaces, and should be considered early in the design process. “Too often the art program is left to the end and maybe not well thought out,” Bosch says. “We try to make sure that the art is an important part of the design of the interior spaces, because there are studies showing a different perception of spaces with no art and just a television to look at.”

And artwork can provide more than just an aesthetic element; Bowman often uses it to conceal medical equipment. “We try to hide the medical gasses behind artwork,” he says. In facilities that use swing rooms (rooms that can adapt to be multiple occupancy, if needed), hiding medical gasses can help conceal the fact that the room has been designed to hold multiple people, making it appear to be a larger, more luxurious single-patient suite.

Of course, not all positive aesthetic elements are man-made. Incorporating natural elements into the environment around the patients can also have a positive influence. “The emphasis on nature and the connection to nature—whether that’s through actual views of the outside, or being able to go outside if possible—continue to be strong trends,” Bowman explains.

Like aesthetic elements, televisions and other tech elements are no longer afterthoughts placed up in the corner of the room—an importance is now placed on integrating these elements into the space’s design.

“Technology has and will continue to have a great impact on the design of the patient room and on the patient/family experience,” Worden-Kirouac says. “In today’s patient room, it’s a 42-inch flat screen TV with internet access. In tomorrow’s room, it’s a patient’s ability to interface their own portable device with the controls in their room to manage not only the lights, but also the temperature, the TV, the window shades, and even the artwork and the very color of their room. How information is shared with the patient through a virtual connection with family and specialists around the globe will dramatically change the delivery of care, and the design of the patient room of the future.”

The good news is that patient rooms are now receiving more attention and dollars earlier in the design process, helping to positively influence how patients and visitors perceive healthcare facilities and the level of care provided. As healthcare reforms push hospitals to further quantify and improve patient outcomes, designers can expect the inclusion of home-like elements and technological amenities to become the rule, rather than the exception.

Kylie Wroblaski is a former editor for BUILDINGS magazine, and has written previously about architecture and facilities management.

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