Debra Levin, EDAC

President and CEO, The Center for Health Design

As President and CEO of The Center for Health Design, Debra Levin is, and has been, responsible for the vision, direction, and funding support of The Center. As the leader of the organization, she is a visionary who truly understands the industry and is able to put the right people and processes together at the right time. Additionally, she is an industry advocate and thought leader.

Thousands of healthcare and design professionals turn to the resources of The Center for Health Design for research and education. For many new to the industry, it is the entry point into connecting the latest research to positive outcomes, both financially as well as economically. Levin is at the forefront of new ideas, trends, and research, and she often connects people and organizations with each other so that everyone can benefit.

The Center, under Levin’s leadership, continues to galvanize the healthcare industry and elevates the role that the physical environment plays in improving the overall healthcare industry in this country, and eventually in other countries, as well. It is her passion for this work, her leadership skills, and her vision for the industry that have helped to drive her success over two decades. Because of her continued insights, energy, and love of the profession, she is truly one of the most influential people in the healthcare design industry.

Todd Hutlock: How have you seen the healthcare design community evolve since the beginning of your career?

Debra Levin, EDAC: Almost 23 years ago when I started working in this industry, there was no central gathering place for likeminded people to meet or a central repository for information or ideas to be shared. There were many people practicing healthcare design, but they were spread out and most were disconnected from others outside their specific geographic area or discipline. For me, one of the most satisfying things has been to watch how over the last two decades, a strong and united voice has risen from the healthcare design profession, a voice that is multidisciplined and growing stronger and more academic every year.

Another significant change has been in the products being designed for use in healthcare settings. Twenty years ago there was very little to choose from that wasn’t institutional in its aesthetic. It was difficult to improve the level of aesthetic creativity because there was not much of a palette to work with. The focus was on improving workflow, productivity, and building layout — all still very important — but the creativity stopped there because the product didn’t exist to execute equally creative aesthetic solutions. Now, as I walk through the exhibit hall floor each year at the HEALTHCARE DESIGN conference, I am blown away by not just the immense scale of options out there, but also the level of creativity and design that went into the development of these products. I truly believe that this change started because we created an annual conference that encouraged conversations between product manufacturers and healthcare and design professionals that allowed them to each share their wants, needs, and frustrations around the current status quo. 

The culmination of creating a more tightly knit community and the influx of new products combined with the innate passion and creativity of this those in the healthcare design profession has lead to a significant rethinking of what a healthcare project might look like. It’s been really interesting to track the projects submitted each year for the annual HEALTHCARE DESIGN Architectural and Interior Design Showcase edition and to see how the bar for the level of creativity and innovation has risen over the years. It’s really satisfying to look back at some of the original issues and to see how far we’ve come and to know that the results of this level of creativity are better outcomes and more positive experiences for patients, families, and staff.

Hutlock: You’ve been an influential figure in the field for a number of years now – who do you think are going to be tomorrow’s most influential people in healthcare design?

Levin: I get really excited when I have the chance to talk to students. Their passion, curiosity and level of commitment is extraordinary. I’m especially intrigued by those coming out of programs that are transdisciplinary, where architecture and design students are in class and working through project solutions alongside students from the schools of nursing, medicine, and public health. I also see people coming out of healthcare design programs with a much stronger background in research. These students will create an entirely new paradigm around how to attack a design problem, and this will have a significant impact on the industry in the decades to come.

Hutlock: Is there a single career accomplishment that you are most proud of?

Levin: I think I am most proud of what The Center has become over the last ten years and the people who have gravitated to it. Not only the passionate and intelligent staff I get to work with every day, but the people who volunteer so much of their time to serve on our Board and all of our committees and councils. They are really the heart and soul of this organization and its successes. I’ve always had a burning passion around our work and have felt it a true privilege to have had the opportunity to dedicate my career to its mission, but to see so many others with that spark in their eye and fire in their bellies and to watch The Center grow to what it is today, that fills me with great pride. 

Hutlock: Is there a single career accomplishment that you absolutely will not rest until you see achieved?

Levin: I think the needs of this growing profession will long outlast the few decades I have left in my career. What we do is like an onion; you learn something new and peel away one layer and there’s another and another and another set of issues left to explore and understand. This is especially true because of the growing definition of what a “healthcare” environment is. As healthcare shifts from the acute care setting to the ambulatory care setting to the home environment, new models of care will continue to pop up and with them, developing new design solutions to support these new models will continue to challenge our profession. To me that’s really exciting. Staying in one place too long causes a sense of complacency that is the enemy of creativity. 

It’s great that we continue to be challenged and even better that we will continue to be a part of solutions that will improve the quality of people’s lives. I frequently tell my staff that they should feel very proud that the work they do every day impacts the lives of millions of people they will never get to meet but who will have a signifi
cantly better experience during what might be one of the darkest times of their lives. That’s a pretty powerful opportunity that not too many people get to have through their work.

Hutlock: Obviously you influence and inspire many people in the healthcare design field. Who influences and inspires you in your work?

Levin: I found my way to this work right out of college through a friendship I had with a man named Tony Torrice. Tony was a designer whose work served children, the physically disabled, and the homeless. As a student, I was traveling around the country the speaking to other students, rallying them to get involved in our profession and use design as a tool to improve the world. Tony and I seemed to frequently be in the same place at the same time, and as I heard him talk about his work, it became clear to me that when I graduated I wanted to focus my career on serving those who too frequently don’t have a voice: children and seniors. I have been able to do that and much, much more through my work here at The Center. I credit my friendship with Tony for planting that seed. 

From Tony to today, I have been blessed with many friendships and partnerships in this industry that have taught me, inspired me, and compelled me on. This is especially true of past and current CHD board members. From the early days of my career, I have had the opportunity to work next to and learn from some of the greatest minds in our industry. It is a rare opportunity to have access to such great thinkers at such a young age and it really shaped who I became as a leader. 

And of course, I can’t leave out my parents. I used to say that I was compelled to change what healthcare facilities looked like before my parents were at a point in their lives where they might have to avail themselves of a long-term care facility. Well, they are in their 80s and happily still living independently in the home I grew up in, and now I’m starting to realize that my focus has turned to creating models that will support me as I age. Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you.


Debra Levin, EDAC: