The industry is in the midst of a shift to a wellness-focused model of care, with an eye on preventing illness rather than treating it.

And the role the built environment plays in the process and the value that designers can bring to the table shouldn’t be overlooked, discussed Tracey Coker, vice president of clinical and support services at Piedmont Fayette Hospital, and Kevin Harney, senior healthcare designer at Earl Swensson Associates Inc., during their session Sunday at the 2014 Healthcare Design Conference in San Diego.

“We’re there to help bridge that gap between the functional aspects and operational aspects,” Harney said.

“Designing for Patient Wellness: Point/Counterpoint” offered the pair’s unique perspectives in guiding how facilities should be planned and designed to support wellness initiatives, something that’s become imperative in the current healthcare landscape.

And while the unknowns of healthcare reform stalled projects for years, now that there’s more clarity in terms of what shape the future of care should take, Coker said he’s seeing hospitals in his Atlanta region quickly launching expansion projects. “The ‘wait and see’ part is over,” he said. “It’s time to respond.”

Part of that response is to create spaces that keep patients well, and for a number of reasons.

To start, there are the challenges of doing business in a new world of lowering reimbursements and other payer shortfalls. To help offset the effects, Coker said providers must reduce the cost of care, requiring buildings that help reduce healthcare-associated infections and readmissions, for example.

Care models also focus on prevention to reduce costs, keeping patients well rather than treating illness. This approach requires a number of initiatives, including convenient and easy access to care, physician integration as well as integration of care offerings within communities. Many wellness-oriented campuses feature retail, ambulatory, and hospital components.

But to find the right solution, Harney said it’s important for designers to step back and listen to clients and then design. “We need to identify and understand all the needs and expectations of owners,” he said. That dialogue, he added, should include solutions steeped in evidence-based design and proven best practices.

And when it comes to posing possible solutions, Coker said owners can be constrained by limitations inherent to the business of healthcare, whereas architects have more freedom to explore outside-the-box concepts. “I’d rather tell an architect to go ahead and if it gets too big, we’ll reel you back in,” he said.

So what are some concepts that might be considered? Here are a few design elements the speakers suggested be considered when designing for patient wellness:

  • Healthy building materials: Use products that are easy to maintain, are environmentally friendly, and don’t include toxins and carcinogens.
  • Smart circulation: Include a central building spine that can easily be the backbone of future expansions, with separate public, patient, and service flows.
  • Patient experience: Think about safety in transfers, bedside technology, and room standardization as well as positive distractions and elements like daylight. Infuse art into spaces where possible and integrate natural forms and materials while also providing spaces for social interaction.
  • Family space: Provide areas for family inside patient rooms and outside, with healing gardens available, too.