Although a handful of free-standing women's hospitals are serving women in select urban centers around the country, much more so, healthcare developers have embraced the concept of the women's pavilion.

“The most common approach to housing consolidated women's services is through distinct additions, units, wings, or pavilions that offer a dedicated women's center entrance, yet are still physically connected to and integrated with a main hospital for physician, staff, and support service access,” explains Diedra Woodring, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, principal, Perkins+Will, Atlanta.

In addition, outpatient women's health centers have been popping up in recent years, usually starting out as a niche service, with plans to expand based upon the availability of capital and market demand, explains Carrie Sheridan, AIA, LEED AP, women's practice leader, senior associate, Taylor, Newport Beach, California.

Essentially, with the bulk of women's healthcare focusing on maternity and neonatal services, this noteworthy trend started back in the early ′90s when women began expressing a desire to separate their well-patient population from the ill-patient environment. In establishing an entry point specifically for women, an opportunity emerged to create a distinct identity.

“These women's centers present a unique, architectur al statement to create a presence and destination point with its own design aesthetic and more feminine architecture,” observes Kevin Appleton, LEED AP, project executive, Batson-Cook Co., Atlanta.

But even more so, medical care providers largely recognize women as the major decision-maker for their family's healthcare choices. So when women enter into a hospital system to give birth-which incidentally is the highest statistic of U.S. hospital admissions-that often initial experience can very well influence their decision to stay with that hospital or health system in the future.

In fact, Woodring sees the transformation of the birth experience from laboring in a cubicle without the presence of family members to doing so in comfortable private rooms geared toward a family-centered experience as the beginning of the women's care center movement.

“For more than a decade, women's centers were dedicated almost exclusively to maternity services. Then more specialty reproductive and fertility services began to be integrated, along with some women's diagnostics. Now, new women's centers often include the full spectrum of comprehensive services, including gynecology with genitourinary and oncology services plus dermatology and cosmetic provisions, taking care of women from youth through the aging process,” she explains.

In addition to women being at the center of a healthcare system's marketing efforts, practically speaking, research has shown that women are more predisposed to certain health problems-such as breast cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis-and specific diseases typically manifest themselves differently in women. So in order to best serve the female population, specialized care centers are generally considered to be the most effective.

Furthermore, as the aging baby boomers continue to hit the hospital, women are anticipated to use healthcare services in greater numbers. Also noteworthy is the fact that breast cancer, pediatrics, and neonatal intensive care are popular philanthropic causes, and women are prime targets for such fundraising campaigns.

Taking all these factors together, there is “a compelling business case to cater a facility to be more appealing to women in order to differentiate it from the competition,” Sheridan concludes.

Bring on the amenities

While general healthcare design trends are moving away from the sterile, institutional look and embracing more natural, sustainable design, this is even more the case with women's facilities. Whether it's maximizing views and comfortable natural light, or specifying nontoxic finishes and furnishings, such choices are important to women.

“Women want to exhale when they walk in the facility, release stress, and let good feelings in. Tranquil, serene, comfortable elements are what they want, so the light level, light fixture selection, variation in materials, and textures are crucial. The space should convey homelike visual cues, with a hospitality quality to the hospital environment and staff,” advises Kris Kirchner, IIDA, ASID, with the Atlanta-based interior design firm K2J.

As such, soothing, soft colors, indirect lighting, floor-to-ceiling sheer curtains, artwork, wood furniture and elements, and bathroom suites are creating a warm, hospitality-like environment for female patients.

“High-end comfort is what it's all about for fixtures, furnishings, and equipment,” states Dale Lee, AIA, LEED AP, vice president of design, Howell Rusk Dodson, Architects, Atlanta.

In a similar vein, Kathleen Bajo, MHA, principal, Smith Hager Bajo, Orlando, points out, “It is not uncommon to see spa products, fluffy towels, framed mirrors, and fresh flowers in the modern women's hospital.”

Taking it even further, private, spacious rooms with space for family seating and overnight guests, soft music, tea and beverage stations, and architectural and interior features mimicking those found in spa environments are aimed at literally pampering women during their stay.

“Amenities can range from comprehensive concierge services, including cupcakes delivered to the room, upgraded bed and bath linens, flameless candles, monogrammed robes, and child care services; to pregnancy programs, including an in-room massage and manicure; to tailored menus with 24-hour room service,” adds Bajo, whose firm specializes in management and facility consulting for women and children's health services.

 

As for technology, WiFi Web access in the waiting areas and patient rooms is becoming commonplace, and some of the more cutting edge rooms have interactive patient communication and entertainment centers, including important hospital information, satisfaction surveys, room service dining menus, education media, and digital entertainment and communication options.

“Some hospitals even have highly sophisticated technology, which flashes the name and title of each medical care professional on the patient room's TV screen as they walk in,” adds Bajo.

Other amenities may include play areas for children, healing gardens, and retail spaces selling products such as maternity clothing, baby items, and skin care, or for specialized patient populations, items like wigs and prosthetics.

Clinically speaking

On the clinical side, a number of newer features also are offering appeal to women. For example, while going through a diagnostic imaging procedure in some settings, women can choose a projected scenery option, such as underwater ocean or a Caribbean beach, Sheridan says.

Women's facilities also are directly addressing women's desire to be well-informed about healthcare issues, as Harold D. Petty, AIA, director of medical design/principal, Earl Swensson Associates, Nashville, explains. “The importance of education is being emphasized with the inclusion of classroom/community room space in women's healthcare facilities to teach everything from infant delivery, postpartum care, and parenting, to nutrition for various healthcare needs,” he says.

Amenities trump quality medical care

Believe it or not, healthcare consumers are sometimes more focused on a hospital's amenities than they are on the level of clinical care.

In fact, several recent studies have revealed that patients will choose and travel farther to hospitals they perceive as having a comfortable environment and amenities with family accommodations.

One such study, “Hospitals
As Hotels: The Role of Patient Amenities in Hospital Demand,” conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California, analyzed the hospital preferences of Medicare pneumonia patients in metropolitan Los Angeles. Surprisingly enough, the research found that while a standardized clinical improvement in pneumonia mortality increased the hospital's patient preferences by 12.7%, what the study measured as a one-standard-deviation increase in a hospital's amenities boosted patient demand by 38.5%.

Tying this in to women's facilities, such non-clinical assessments are much more commonplace. As Kathleen Bajo, MHA, principal, Smith Hager Bajo, Orlando, explains, “The non-clinical amenities are a key part of the judgment of patients on the quality of the care delivered, as much of their stay in the room is non-clinically oriented and is primarily for comfortable rest.”

Supplementing this in-house education, Jeffrey C. Stouffer, AIA, principal and director of strategic development, HKS, Dallas, is seeing community outreach education as a vehicle through which hospitals are drawing prospective patients with programs for issues like breast care, cancer care, reproductive medicine, urogynecology, and cardiac care.

Another clinical trend is consolidating health services for the sake of convenience. This might mean offering screenings, diagnostics, and follow-up therapies in the same location as treatment and surgery; or in some cases, expanding conventional therapies to include integrative approaches such as acupuncture or yoga.

Universal design

Even though one main thread running through women's facilities is the fact they are catering to a gender-specific market niche, Woodring stresses the importance of recognizing and accomodating differing needs and sensitivies among this client base.

An attractive skylight and comfortable seating in Northside Hospital's grand galleria connects the women's center to the main hospital.

For example, “These spaces must support women during happy, healthy pregnancies, yet be sensitive to and provide for the patients who are having difficulty even becoming pregnant,” she explains.

Similarly, the facility design and setup must also take into account women with young children as well as older, more fragile patients who require a quieter, more peacful setting.

“The design team must work to understand the facility's surrounding community cultures and the specific women's clinical services to be offered in order to tailor the appropriate environment through color, texture and finishes, lighting, shapes and wayfinding, furnishings, and artwork. This may mean sleek and sophisticated to some; colorful; or more muted, soothing, and serene; playful and animated; or correctly placed combinations of many of these ideas,” she advises.

St. David's Women's Center of Texas, located on the campus of St. David's Austin Medical Center in Austin, Texas, is now the largest comprehensive women's center in Central Texas. This labor/delivery/recovery room is an example of the direction of women's healthcare, trending toward larger rooms with accommodations for family, appealing finishes, availability of natural light, and artwork.

But whatever the case may be, women's centers are here to stay, having experienced such a warm reception from the female healthcare community. And even though the general economic slowdown has delayed plans for new centers in different locales, it's surely just a matter of time until the pace picks up once again. HCD Barbara Horwitz-Bennett can be reached at bbennett@bezqint.net. Healthcare Design 2011 May;11(5):24-32