Be My Guest
October 01, 2005

By Staff
Appeared in Contract Magazine

To the healthcare industry— and it is an industry—hospital patients aren't just ill people. They're also consumers, and facilities are wise to treat them that way. In trying to meet the high demands of a picky customer, any product or service provider ultimately raises the quality standard. For a while now, hospitals have recognized this and have taken stabs at designing patient rooms with a bend toward hospitality or residential. But there is another way to approach the problem of how to satisfy a patient's needs, especially those of the demanding baby-boomers. Since the ultimate goal of caregiving is to get the patient well and back to his normal life in the shortest period of time, that should be the directive behind any blueprint for a well-designed patient room.

One of the best ways to do this is by looking at what makes the room as safe as possible. Semi-private rooms signal the mentality of yesteryear. The first step in designing a safer patient room is making it private, thereby nearly eliminating the potential for patient mix up when it comes to the nurse handing out medication or doctors making rounds. Reserving the room for one also cuts down on the spread of germs between patients or by a roommate's visitors. Once the room is made private, the space can then be divided into designated zones, which enhances the healthfulness, as well as the comfort of the space. In the caregiver zone, the space closest to the door, is the sink. Its placement by the room's entrance reminds everyone, especially the doctor (who's probably just come from visiting another patient), to wash his hands immediately to minimize infection. The middle area is the patient zone, and the area toward the windows the family zone where visitors are out of the way. Building in a family zone recognizes "the need for social support and its significance to patient healing," says Janet Faulkner, a principal at Callison Architecture in Seattle, noting it is an important focus of today's modern patient room.

The state-of-the-art patient room now is also being designed to be an acuity-adaptable space. This means that the room is equipped to deal with various levels of illness so that a patient doesn't need to be transferred to different rooms as the severity of the illness changes. For example, if a patient is admitted for intensive care but the acuity decreases, the patient is typically transferred to a different room and floor. "Records are moved, teams are moved as the patient is transported, but it's costly, inefficient, and it increases anxiety and human error," says Faulkner. To design for flexibility, a room must have sufficient square footage and mechanical capabilities to support medical equipment. Keeping the patient put and having the care team change instead tackles multiple safety issues while increasing the patient's comfort, which in turn speeds up the healing process.

Positive distractions such as art can also do much more than decorate a space. "Research shows that even a short duration of seeing something positive can reduce blood pressure and stress," says Barbara Dellinger, IIDA, AAHID, director of healthcare interiors for the east coast for HDR in Alexandria, Va. The art, however, should be of a very specific kind of art. Warhol-like abstractions do not do the trick. The art must be nature scenes with recognizable horizons and without dark shadows. Even pre-recorded nature sounds or calming pre-tested music have been shown to reduce a patient's need for pain medication, says Dellinger. Televisions tuned to the CARE channel show a picture of an ocean with its corresponding sounds.

It's also time to say goodbye to light glaring in the patient's eyes from above. Even the smallest details can be repositioned to eliminate what can be a nagging bother to someone who is bedridden. Sofas that turn into beds and stacking chairs are added for larger visitor groups. "Hospitals now want patients to be comfortable and they want the family to stay in the room," says Dellinger. Every aspect is being reconsidered in terms of how it can help the patient's experience and wellness.

As for materials, poured epoxy floors in the bathroom are replacing ceramic, and mosaics are being replaced with larger tiles, which helps maintain clean grout. More rubber and linoleum is being used, too. "We're now thinking about the hospital room of the future with a focus on technology," says Jackie Bolin, vice president of healthcare for the Syska Hennessy Group in Los Angeles. For example, the patient rooms in Banner Estrella Medical Center in Phoenix, Ariz., are equipped with computer screens and keyboards that rest on an arm beside the patient bed for both patient and caregiver use. This not only adds modern day amenities to the hospital experience—a patient can even access entertainment and healthcare education from her bed—but going paperless with computers in the room also decreases medical errors. A doctor can call up an MRI, order an X-ray or access medical records from the patient's bedside. Of course, this means that the rooms are now built with more complicated cable structures than before.

It's best not to think in terms of trends when designing the modern patient room, but rather of what serves both the hospital and the patient in the long term. Sticking to the idea of what can heal the patient the fastest is the leading factor here, which directly implies patient comfort and safety, since those two environmental factors have a significant impact on a patient's recovery time. There may never be a swanky rooftop terrace or a heated pool for hospital patients as there are for hotel guests, but who knows what's in store for the future.