Devan Swiontkowski, Healthcare Planner, BWBR (Saint Paul, Minn.)

Devan Swiontkowski knew before she completed her college graduate studies that she wanted to pursue healthcare design as a career. She earned her Bachelor of Design in Architecture from the University of Minnesota, then completed her Masters of Architecture at the University of Kansas, while also earning a Certificate in Healthcare Design and holding a six-month healthcare-focused internship at BWBR. She’s also earned her EDAC certification.

After graduation, she joined the firm full time, where over the last seven years, she’s played a significant role in many groundbreaking projects, taking on leadership roles and driving new ideas. For example, as the healthcare planner for the Regions Hospital Birth Center in St. Paul, Minn., she led the client in developing and implementing Couplet Care. The progressive operational model facilitates improved patient outcomes for both mother and baby by providing family-centered care in a shared suite.

The project also involved careful consideration of the needs of multiple births as well as larger and culturally diverse families. Her advocacy for the Couplet Care model will have a significant impact on the specific needs of this community.

Swiontkowski also served as lead healthcare planner for the M Heath Fairview St. John’s Hospital NICU in Maplewood, Minn., partnering with the client to upgrade its open-ward NICU to a mix of single- and multi-occupancy rooms to provide a more nurturing environment for patients and their families.

She also partnered with the healthcare organization to design Minnesota’s first EmPATH unit at M Health Fairview Southdale Hospital, which provides dedicated space to care for patients experiencing psychiatric emergencies, helping divert traffic away from the emergency department.

Not content to simply repeat what’s been done in the past, Swiontkowski seeks to thoroughly understand her clients’ goals, vision, and operations, both in terms of their current state as well as how she can create an ideal future state to optimize care. Through projects like the Southdale EmPATH and the St. John’s NICU, she has a proven track record of creating and implementing designs that advance the care patients receive and help our clients achieve their goals.

Furthermore, she’s stepped into a thought-leadership role at the firm, contributing to white papers focused on staff resiliency in the era of COVID-19 and speaking at national conferences including the Healthcare Design Conference + Expo about her transformative EmPATH work.

Swiontkowski is committed to mentorship and continuous improvement, both for herself and her colleagues, as well. She’s active in the BWBR healthcare community of practice, including creating best-practice prototypes, and has worked extensively to support knowledge-sharing and upskilling within the firm. She also dedicates time to external mentorship, and is currently mentoring a local college student, meeting monthly to expose them to different facets of healthcare architecture and offering feedback and critique on their work.

By sharing her knowledge with colleagues and the industry at large, Swiontkowski is a champion for implementing the future of healthcare design.

Path to healthcare design: My first spark of interest in healthcare design was being introduced, as an undergrad, to the idea that the built environment can have a profound impact on a patient’s physical and mental healing process. From there, I did everything I could to expose myself to this type of design and have since focused my career on healthcare design in order to help bring more of this thinking to our field. Along the way, I’ve discovered a multitude of other passions within healthcare design, including Lean thinking and staff efficiency and resiliency.

Describe your design approach: Concise and collaborative, balancing deep listening and impromptu creativity.

On your desk now: I have two behavioral projects for Avera Health. I enjoy partnering with this system as we learn from past projects and apply what has been successful to new projects, helping them continuously evolve. I’m also working with a critical access hospital in Minnesota to design an expansion and addition. These projects allow me to help them envision their future needs and set them up for long-term growth and success, rather than just focusing on short-term fixes, all while hugely improving quality of life for both their patients and staff.

Most rewarding project to date: The MHealth Fairview Southdale EmPATH Unit, which provides dedicated space to care for patients experiencing psychiatric emergencies, was the first of its kind in the state of Minnesota, and one of only a handful in the country. It was such a great experience working closely with the staff not only on the design of this new unit, but on how their flows and processes would change and be integrated into their existing care model. Even after only a year of occupancy, MHealth Fairview has seen the amazing impacts this care model has on patients, including a dramatic decrease in inpatient mental health admissions.

What success means to you: I believe success is when all members of a team feel they have a seat at the table and the ability to speak up when they have ideas. Some of the best projects I’ve been a part of have had a non-hierarchical structure, where all voices and opinions are equally important, and it has always made the project better and created a true sense of teamwork. Healthcare design is very complex, and it takes a range of experts to make sure every box is checked.

Industry challenge on your radar: As designers, we have the important role of educating our clients on how their facilities can be effective tools in providing humanizing care for patients—particularly in behavioral health. I have a passion for this type of design and have seen how effective it can be in treating this population, allowing them to de-escalate effectively, providing them with needed resources, and keeping staff members safe and efficient. In the face of a nationwide mental health crisis, resources are limited, but good design can help reduce inpatient admissions and staff injuries while increasing staff retention, hopefully taking some of that pressure off.

Must-have skill for healthcare designers today: The ability to be adaptable and forward-thinking. Many of the clients I work with are in rural settings, which means they don’t often have the opportunity for expansions or updates. As healthcare planners, we must understand what their needs may be in five, 10, or even 15 years in order to set them up for long-term success. Often these projects are working with older existing facilities, which can bring many surprises and less-than-ideal infrastructure, so you must be nimble and think creatively in order to still achieve the client’s goals.

For more on the 2023 HCD Rising Stars, read here.