The May 2015 issue of Healthcare Design offers a lot in terms of lessons learned, on how the past informs the future of healthcare systems and inspires physical buildings that will serve their patients, staff, and communities better than it ever could before. Whether it’s designing for resiliency against acts of God (Mercy Hospital Joplin) or harnessing the power of a challenging everyday climate (Kaiser Permanente's Antelope Valley Medical Offices), healthcare architecture has evolved in extraordinary ways to define what a healing environment can really be.

And while exteriors have adapted over time, so too have healthcare interiors, serving patient, family, and staff needs in a way that would be unrecognizable to generations not that far removed from our own.

I reached out to members of the International Interior Design Association to get some insight into exactly how and why these changes have occurred. The most obvious shift has been from overall sterile-feeling (often bright white) environments to more homelike, comfortable, and hospitable spaces—though even that has shifted, as designers are now more diligent about making sure that operational efficiency and practical matters like maintenance aren’t compromised for the sake of style.  In that way, healthcare interior design has significantly evolved from more of a decorator role to that of a critical collaborative partner in the overall process.

Sonja Bochart, principal with SmithGroupJJR (Phoenix), and Jocelyn Stroupe, director of healthcare interiors for Cannon Design (Chicago), note a few other significant changes over the decades:

  1. More input from more stakeholders. “While it’s always been important to consider many different constituents who influence design decisions, we’re being asked to consider additional voices,” says Stroupe. “Infection control has taken the lead in influencing design decisions. … We also meet with more patient advisory groups.”
  2. Faster, sooner, cheaper. Healthcare providers need—and are demanding—more from interior designers, including earlier involvement in the process and quicker turnaround times on design concepts and documentation. Yet, Bochart says, they often want to pay lower fees: “And if we aren’t willing to do this, someone else will.”
  3. Changing patient populations. Designing spaces to accommodate families has become the norm, Stroupe says, with larger patient and exam rooms and more amenities specifically for visitors. The growth in the senior demographic means greater attention to design that reduces slips and falls, while the trend toward heavier Americans has translated into a greater variety of seating options and in-room bariatric accommodations.

Today’s interior designer, says Bochart, “serves constituents in a meaningful way, contributing to wellness in a thought-provoking manner and evidence-based approach, and truly merging beauty, function, and wellness in the built environment.” As technology and changing care models continue to challenge current building practices, those skills are likely to be called on even more.