The Evolution of Acute Healthcare Facilities & Human-Centered Design

By Beverley Spencer

In the ever-changing realm of healthcare, acute care facilities are undergoing a substantial transformation, gravitating towards more adaptable and resilient spaces that center more holistically on human needs. With the pulse of progress quickening, this evolving design ideology places a heightened emphasis on improving both patient and provider experiences, all while grappling with the challenges associated with the expansion of healthcare infrastructure. The integration of cutting-edge technology, seamlessly woven into the fabric of interior architectural innovation, heralds a new era where the design of healthcare harmonizes with a resolute dedication to human-centric design from inception through execution. We’re now seeing the future of acute care materialize—a vibrant intersection of innovation, compassion, and design.

Benefits of Human-Centric Design

The adoption of human-centered design in acute care facilities affords a multitude of benefits particularly in the reduction of stress for both patients and healthcare providers. Human-Centric Design focuses on building environments that are nurturing, restorative, and responsive to the needs of those who use them. A crucial component to this design strategy, functional floor plans must be implemented to provide caregivers with clear sightlines and close proximity to patients. Additionally, facilities must increasingly prioritize areas for relaxation and respite for healthcare providers themselves. Thoughtful organization of spaces and elements within them significantly reduces professional stress, thereby increasing employee satisfaction and staff retention. The design of patient-dedicated spaces is equally important, with key considerations including minimizing visual clutter, integrating family zones, and incorporating user friendly technology to enhance accessibility and user control. These elements work together to ensure that patients feel connected and supported throughout their stay.

Creating Innovative Facility Layouts

The latest evolution of design layouts in healthcare facilities is characterized by an increased focus on flexibility and efficiency, prioritizing well-being not only for patients, but also for caregivers. Flexible room designs that adapt and respond to fluctuating patient needs have become common and are a critical feature for integrating proactive and preventative measures. Creating rooms that accommodate a wider variety of needs doesn’t necessarily require a physical increase in size; rather designers are working with facility managers to maximize existing layouts, better equipping them to handle both growing volumes and evolving patient requirements. This also ensures sufficient space for larger equipment storage and personal protective equipment, as well as the implementation of staff respite areas. As the current landscape of acute care projects shows an equal focus on constructing new facilities and renovating existing spaces, with many aimed at expanding or enhancing interiors to improve the quality of care and overall experience, designers are cleverly implementing these considerations while adhering to established spatial guidelines.

Key Design Elements

We have seen several factors and specific design considerations increasingly take precedence in the creation of acute care facilities. Biophilic design, which incorporates natural elements like direct access to nature, natural light, and the use of natural forms in furnishings and architecture, is in-demand. This design approach is seen to aid in healing as it creates a more comforting and therapeutic environment for patients and their loved ones. Designers are exploring how to organize and configure spaces to increase direct access and views to nature and natural light (or implement fixtures that mimic this desired lighting), helping patients to better regulate their circadian rhythms.

Acoustics are another vital factor in modern healthcare design. We’re seeing the continued use of acoustic-backed products, particularly in inpatient corridors, highlighting the importance of noise reduction in ensuring greater patient recovery and sleep quality and staff’s ability to focus. There has been a significant increase in the use of resilient acoustic materials as improved patient sleep quality has become a major topic in the healthcare industry. Despite higher upfront costs and potential issues surrounding certain cleaning methods, it’s crucial to consider these elements as we attempt to craft the best experience for patients possible. While cost and maintenance are often a top priority, facilities are increasingly opting to include better acoustics.

Sustainability remains a growing focus, with an emphasis on using eco-friendly materials. Facility managers are now carefully examining options surrounding product sourcing and lifecycles, while material suppliers themselves are establishing sustainability goals that align with these updated expectations. As a whole, this trend also includes a preference for domestic and locally sourced products, which tend to yield less overall carbon emissions from transportation, aligning with broader environmentally conscious objectives.

The Impact of the Pandemic and Rise of Telehealth

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound influence on the design of healthcare facilities. The need for spaces to be flexible, adaptable, and resilient has never been more apparent, underscoring the necessity for designs that can accommodate the potential of future public health emergencies. This includes a greater awareness of material selection and sanitation capabilities, including connections and seaming for grout, calking, etc. The connecting seam between hard and soft flooring can be difficult for facilities and their environmental service teams to maintain. As such, decision-makers now prioritize the use of materials that are easier to clean and typically low maintenance, with approximately 95% of surfaces composed of hard materials. Generally, if carpet tile is used, it is limited to a waiting area or inset within a hard surface flooring in a lobby or waiting area.

The pandemic has also catalyzed ongoing transitions beyond the push for greater flexibility and updated material considerations. Now, designers must increasingly plan for technological integration early in the design process. This integration, which might include elements like smart technology, advanced monitoring, and access to a range of adjustable technology in patient rooms, helps improve communication with patients about their care while offering them greater control of their environment. Outside of these facilities, telehealth has also become prominent, especially as it relates to accessing specialist consultations, indicating a shift towards a more interconnected and digitally advanced healthcare system that acute care facilities must be ready to accommodate.

Overall, the evolution of acute healthcare facilities prioritizes human-centered design and stands as a testament to the healthcare sector’s adaptability and commitment to improving wellbeing for all facility occupants. By embracing innovative layouts, exploring wellness-oriented design elements, and integrating more adaptive means of care, these facilities are poised to provide more effective, efficient, and compassionate healthcare services for years to come.

Beverley Spencer, CID, EDAC, CDT, is a Senior Associate and Interior Designer with FCA.