The Desert Samaritan Medical Center, Mesa, Ariz, treatment room features a wall of colorful glass blocks.

Good design: it seems simple enough when considering the packaged goods we buy and how they impact customers, and why we purchase them: easy-to-use, new compact size, improved packaging. The strategy behind it is reinvention. Consider the world around you: the magazine on your desk, your favorite hotel, a car you want to drive. All these things share one common element: good design that creates a critical advantage. Now consider how those things have changed over the decade. As times change, so must design. The question then becomes: how can we reinvent an existing product to interest new consumers, and be more appealing to current ones? This is a question that is having a considerable impact on health care today.

The architectural process used in developing a plan for imaging centers is becoming less about the technology itself and more about the outside factors affecting health care in general, including economics, infrastructure, and access. As more and more strategically driven health care networks form, differentiating between health care providers’ services is increasingly difficult for the consumer. One way health care providers are attempting to distinguish themselves is by creating innovative models such as patient-focused care or a health park concept, both of which attempt to replace the sense of institution with a feeling of community, incorporating wellness and personal involvement in the health care process. Another more direct approach that addresses this institutional feeling is the interior design of the facility itself. Think of it as a lesson in Marketing 101, not just image. What better way to differentiate than to reinvent?

The best part of design is always the opportunity to reinvent, which does not necessarily imply starting over. Design for many architects and designers is not so much about creating as it is the process of problem solving and the search for innovation. For this process to be effective, it must incorporate operational strategy and cost considerations, along with the emotional aspects of comfort and general well-being. Design is about color and texture and much more.

The tendency, particularly in imaging, has been to solve everything with technology, which has resulted in overlooking the patient experience. Also, cost and scheduling have become such factors that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that health care facilities are in the business of helping patients get better. If that is not happening, no economies are being reached.

A shift in thinking demands a look at a different model, a model that is based on information rather than one based on technology, a patient-focused future instead of a future focused on equipment needs. With a new model to work from, it is possible to begin to think about the imaging department or outpatient center in a different way.

Critical Input

Both the CT suite and the waiting room at TMC Palm Valley Imaging Center, Goodyear, Ariz, feature noninstitutional lighting and Arts and Crafts-style details, intended to create a nonthreatening environment.

When an imaging center is viewed with more than just efficiency in mind, it is possible to provide a more comfortable environment for patients, families, and staff. It is crucial to approach design from all perspectives-patients, family, and staff-because all are part of the care-giving team. In fact, some facilities have gone as far as to implement focus groups including physicians, nurses, and other health professionals, along with parents and children. The impact on staff morale, as well as patient satisfaction, can be tremendous. As employees are engaged in the design process, they feel a pride of ownership and generally feel a sense of participating in something that is greater than themselves.

Attention to design-based input is also much appreciated by patients. For instance, the design for the Laura Dreier Breast Care Center at Good Samaritan Medical Center, Phoenix, Ariz, is based on feedback from patients, families, and staff. Even though the center is located in a major hospital structure, its front door is clearly visible to the public, and they do not have to enter via lengthy hospital corridors. Once inside, the design is more likely to be described as that of a hotel or spa, not a hospital-based imaging center. The greeting process is less formal than might be expected, utilizing wood furniture and a comfortable lobby space. Seating, fabrics, and wall colors are selected to be appropriate for a women’s clinical area, while respecting the need for maintenance. Special details, based on a nature theme, were included throughout the overall space. This was accomplished with fabrics, art, and custom ceramic tiles. Women who have visited have responded enthusiastically to such amenities as spa-like dressing rooms and the overall calming, nurturing feeling of the surroundings. Evaluations from women consistently register remarks about the relaxed and soothing home-like environment at the hospital. A high level of detail is found in key places, such as ample, home-like waiting rooms and private dressing areas with attention to color and furnishings. These amenities add greatly to the comfort and security of family members as they stand by for support.

Patient-Focused Care Pays Off

The number-one goal that good design for imaging can accomplish is keeping the stress level of the patient down, which directly relates to recovery time and overall satisfaction with the health care experience. Roger S. Ulrich notes in an article written for the Healthcare Forum Journal in 1992 that “good design can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, improve the postoperative course, reduce the need for pain medication, and shorten the hospital stay.”

An excellent example of how design makes a difference for patients and families is TMC Palm Valley Imaging Center, Goodyear, Ariz. The design for this facility introduces a welcoming environment. Noninstitutional lighting, Arts and Crafts- style furnishings, and larger spacious rooms all soften the impact of the very high-tech MRI, CT, and ultrasound equipment. Windows are used to open the space, including natural light from exterior walls whenever possible and internal back-lit ceiling panels.

“Using design is definitely a trend we will continue with as we grow,” according to Kevin King, director of operations, TMC Advanced Imaging Inc. “Patients appreciate it and typically have a much better experience. We try for a very nontraditional theme in all our centers. Feedback has always been positive, and many times our patients are surprised. We have a nonthreatening environment, which creates a calming influence, versus the typical clinical setting.”

Creating an atmosphere that evokes such positive responses from patients and families can lead to lasting positive sentiment toward the health care provider, confidence that they have made the right choice in providers, and a sense of dignity in being treated so respectfully at a very unsettling time.

Another example of how light, design, and aesthetics ease patient fears is at the Desert Samaritan Medical Center in Mesa, Ariz. As the patient enters the room where the linear accelerator is located, their immediate attention is drawn to a beautiful, full-height wall made up of white, blue, purple, red, and yellow glass blocks. This wall not only gives the impression of natural light, but it creates a room that is suitable for a shopping plaza, much less a radiation treatment department.

Design as Marketing strategy

As the healthcare arena becomes increasingly competitive, implementing an aggressive facility development strategy is an effective form of consumer marketing. Back to Marketing 101: how can you best position your product so more people will buy it? The conclusion seems to be that attention to detail, particularly the focus on making a normally sterile, clinical environment resonate with the warmth of design, can make an attractive difference to the patient.

Design seems to be bringing more than just good feedback from the consumer. Hospital administrators across the country are reporting positive results from adding good design into their strategic investments.

Patient-focused studies consistently indicate that design is a factor that will:

-Improve patient satisfaction
-Reduce staff turnover
-Improve public relations
-Increase patient testimonials to family ??and friends
-Increase market share
-Whether considering a new facility or remodeling an existing space, design should be factored in as an essential strategic element for a successful future. When?? evaluating all of the things you can do to increase efficiency and upgrade technology, design can be the least expensive means to building value into your strategic investments. In the end, embracing the consumer marketing model and finding unique design solutions could go a long way toward building satisfied, loyal health care consumers. A little effort in design can make a big difference in your business.

Morris A. Stein is a founding partner and president of The Stein-Cox Group, a Phoenix-based architectural firm specializing in health care facilities, with an emphasis on imaging, cardiovascular disease, and cancer treatment.