At the new Colorado Institute for Maternal and Fetal Health (CIMFH) outpost at Children’s Hospital Colorado, the designers included a full kitchen, accessible to all patients and their visitors in this highly specialized care unit. Almost immediately after opening in early November 2012, a patient’s family asked to use it to serve a complete Thanksgiving feast.

“The mom had already delivered her baby and was in her postpartum stay,” explains Mary Beth Martin, CIMFH’s executive director. “So instead of having her miss out, they just brought the whole family and dinner to the hospital.”

It’s a nice-looking and comfortable space, adjacent to a “den,” and it’s all part of the facility’s strong family focus. These are high-risk pregnancies being treated in this unit, so a sensitive environment with lots of emotional support was very high on the priorities list.

You can see examples like this all over the place, serving both visitors and long-term patients alike, like the dedicated teen playroom at Herman & Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai in Baltimore, the garden zone linking all the treatment pods at the Brooklyn Infusion Center, and the extraordinary two floors’ worth of patient and visitor support spaces at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

These are all new facilities, and it will be interesting to see, a couple of years from now, how much those spaces are being used for their intended purposes. I keep thinking about that webinar I recently moderated, where the designers were disappointed to learn in their five-year post-occupancy evaluation of an acute care hospital that their carefully designed family spaces sat empty and unused. It turned out that families just didn’t want to leave the patient’s side.

There are a lot of factors, besides visitors’ hesitation to leave the patient, that can play into whether or not a shared space is serving its purpose. Location, adequate wayfinding, and enough welcoming cues to ensure that visitors don’t feel like they’re intruding where they don’t belong are some of them. In theory, these spaces make so much sense and can do so much good—but if they sit empty, not only is that nurturing opportunity wasted, but the hospital has wasted valuable real estate (not to mention money).

So how do you do it? I love seeing examples of creative, welcoming, shared environments meant to provide healing and stress relief for anyone who walks through the facility’s doors. And I’d be interested to know if there’s any current research being done on this topic. What are the steps designers and planners are taking to make sure these spaces are used? Are you going back later and assessing their use? If those findings are unsatisfactory, what modifications are being made to draw families in?


For a full profile on the new CIMFH unit at Children’s Hospital Colorado, see the upcoming July issue of Healthcare Design.

A session at the Healthcare Design Conference in November will address the topic of family-centered design, titled “Healthcare Design from the Patient and Family Perspective.” For more information, see the conference agenda.