Designers’ Roundtable: Wellness is the New Healthcare
A highlight at this year’s NeoCon was Interior Design’s annual healthcare roundtable, where more than 30 healthcare designers and manufacturers parried back and forth on everything from new technologies to legislation, moderated by Interior Design publisher Carol Cisco and president emeritus Mark Strauss. The discussion, hosted at healthcare startup and incubator Matter, highlighted the importance of design to clients who are increasingly thinking tactically: “Before the recession, people were spending money more freely, now they spend strategically,” noted Jane Rohde of JSR Associates. “There’s this idea of wanting to reach a higher level before the competition does.” Here’s our take on a few of the key trends that emerged from the debate.
1. The influence of hospitality and retail
Across the design world, boundaries between genres are blurring: offices and hotels take their cues from residential, while institutions are becoming more hospitality minded. “Our clients are looking to hospitality on how to provide customer service and amenities to their patients,” stated Donald Cremers, vice president of interior design at HOK, adding that calling in such consultants was becoming more popular. “I think healthcare has already largely broken away from institutionalism,” agreed Harley Ellis Devereaux’s Eric Koffler. “Now, it’s about vibrancy and trendiness, often drawing from retail.”
There’s a line to ride however, as providers can’t afford to look as though they’re spending on froufrou luxuries. “You can’t look too glitzy when you’re still struggling to pay the bills,” told Haley Driscoll, senior healthcare interior designer at Environetics. “And,” she cautioned, “unless there’s evidence there will be a return in investment, clients aren’t interested in going down that route. From a cost perspective I find things are actually getting leaner.”
Koffler wondered if the coming years might see the hospitality trend reverse. “I think we might have gone as far as we will go in that direction. Dirt hides well in a hospitality environment but will millennials—the future recipients of our healthcare system—prefer clean, clinical white? We might see a shift back.” Rohde saw a way to marry the two points of view: “I think it is the outpatient spaces versus hospitals that will be richer in detail, more typically hospitality.”
2. Being well
“What are some new types of conversations you’ve had with clients in the last year?” Mark Strauss asked the table. “What are they asking for that they haven’t before?”
“There’s more of a focus on staff experience,” commented Lauren Andrysiak, lead interior designer in healthcare at VOA Associates. “For instance, we’re doing a huge physicians lounge, half a floor in size, that comes with a professional chef.” Another spoke of a client’s farm-to-table kitchen and gardens planted on site. The examples spoke to a cultural shift: wellness is the new healthcare. “People want to be healthy,” underscored Strauss. “It’s not just about treating sickness anymore.” And for hospitals and physicians, preventing rather than treating disease is a markedly cheaper and less onerous solution. That shift to preventative care and investing in education so people don’t get sick in the first place (think the proliferation of diabetes outreach clinics) looks set to influence the healthcare landscape in years to come.
Wellness is influencing metrics, too. Take the Healthier Hospitals initiative, which gives governmental rewards if institutions achieve their goals. But some designers were disheartened: “My clients are overwhelmed with standards as it is,” said Cremers. Kimberly Sank of Wieland added that it’s hard to know which metric to go for, citing the Well Building standard as another measure vying for traction. The principals forecasted a situation similar to what they saw as a trend with LEED, in which firms are adopting a “do the right thing” approach but not always seeking the standard. Which is not to discount the influence of such initiatives. “LEED pushed the industry into low VOC and other measures,” noted Koffler. “Will Well or Healthier Hospitals be the next thing?”
3. New gadgets
A wide-ranging discussion on quirky new products followed, covering everything from animatronic toys for the aged and isolated to weighted blankets and therapy chairs that wrap round and “hug” patients with dementia. Technologies that would allow the elderly to be in their own home longer look set to increase and had piqued the designers’ interest the most. Think a sensor tied to a diaper that registers when it is wet, so an adult child with an elderly parent can monitor mom or dad from afar.
The afternoon ended with a tour of the American Medical Association’s Interaction Studio at Matter, which was set up as a virtual physician’s room complete with a chair that could accurately take patients’ blood pressure, something Matter’s research found was done incorrectly in many hospital settings. But the undeniable hit of the night was a prototype that turns multiple CAT scans into a singular 3-D image when viewed with an Oculus virtual reality headset. As the designers tried it out and made plans to return to Matter to troubleshoot their own projects with AMA’s physician members, there was a palpable sense of excitement—the feeling that it was just this sort of cross dialogue that might snake past old frustrations, breathe fresh air into stale thinking, and reinvigorate a tired health care system. It was an encouraging note to end on.