Our firm recently received a design RFP from a healthcare client who asked an interesting question: “Do you consider your firm a design studio or a business adviser?”  I found this to be thought provoking, the suggestion that a design firm could only be successful at one or the other, but likely not both.

I believe it points to a common myth that design firms are focused primarily on facility aesthetics and to a lesser degree on the actual business of care delivery.

In truth, there’s usually a very different answer to this question: Design firms are uniquely qualified to deliver design thinking to solve complex problems that span the entire ecosystem of healthcare delivery, blending together design and strategic thinking.

Many healthcare design firms are now staffed with multidisciplinary teams of design, business, clinical, and social science professionals to address the complexity of healthcare issues, and our capacity to reimagine healthcare is virtually limitless. 

Healthcare delivery is in the process of a radical transformation toward implementation of new healthcare reform mandates, the primary ones being cost containment (efficiency) and quality care (outcomes) agendas. Solutions to these problems are embedded in new methods of care delivery, supplemented with supporting information technology and geographically distributed facilities that are integrated for the benefit of patients.

The common variable in this complex delivery system is the patient and family/support network. The effectiveness of any healthcare delivery system is dependent on the degree to which patients engage with their providers and take responsibility for their own well-being.

This is where designers can bring the greatest value—to understand the impact of care delivery and the physical environment on human behavior and to create valuable solutions.

Design thinking techniques can be used to properly frame complex problems and deconstruct the issues to identify underlying patient needs. The creative process can then produce fully integrated solutions that involve all aspects of care delivery and patient engagement. Design thinking creates healthcare solutions that aren’t only beautiful but that also work beautifully.   


Hank Adams is senior vice president and director of healthcare for HDR. He is a healthcare planning and design expert with more than 28 years of experience, specializing in academic medical centers, community hospitals, ambulatory facilities, and global health. He is a frequent speaker, columnist, and advocate for healthcare design and its impact on healthcare delivery and outcomes. He is also board certified by the American College of Healthcare Architects in the specialty of healthcare design and is EDAC accredited in the application of evidence-based research in the design of physical environments. He can be reached at hank.adams@hdrinc.com. Follow him on Twitter at @hank_adams.