Comment: How modern healthcare design reflects evolving patient needs

Jo Davis of The Senator Group reports on how good design is increasingly important for enhancing the patient environment

The Senator Group brought its unique design approach to the development of the new Southmead Hospital

In this article, Jo Davis of The Senator Group looks at how the use of space, colour, and other aspects of design are growing in influence when it comes to planning healthcare properties

The last 15 years have recorded a fundamental change in how the NHS delivers care, as designers and planners have been challenged to source new and innovative ways to support a diversifying patient base.

Modern design understands that functional healthcare spaces are more than just practical or clinical: there needs to be an atmosphere that comforts and heals all who inhabit it

This design evolution is set to accelerate following the NHS 5 Year Forward View (5YFV), as it pledges to integrate resources and services to meet the full spectrum of community needs. The transformation is rooted in the changing perception of wellbeing, promoting joined-up health and social care, as well as a more-insightful understanding of the people that use healthcare premises.

The categories of staff and patients are now recognised as multi-faceted, complex demographics. Patients could be long-term or emergency, have mental health issues or physical ailments. Likewise, the needs of everyone, from families of patients to doctors and nurses, cleaning staff and reception workers need to be taken into account.

This attitude is now evident in the design process for healthcare spaces, as designers use a three-strand strategy for accommodating different patients in a shared space: patient participation, patient choice and patient experience.

Patient participation studies how patients use furniture in the context of their surroundings, with patients and professionals testing practice and function and providing genuine feedback to designers. Patient choice looks at where patients choose to be treated, which in the digital age can be their own homes, as well as the clinical services available. Finally, patient experience measures the impression of care and service from the moment a patient enters to the moment they leave.

Staff engagement is also important, valuing those who work within healthcare premises as much as the patients they support. Modern design understands that functional healthcare spaces are more than just practical or clinical: there needs to be an atmosphere that comforts and heals all who inhabit it.

The use of colour can create a soothing ambience and mark out bright, easily-discernible spaces to aid the visually impaired and assist with general wayfinding

These intertwining philosophies are helping shape a healthcare service sector that makes comfort and calm central to medical environments. Furniture and design are being planned from the early stages of development, rather than as an afterthought, making the needs of its people inherent in every stage of its operations.

The growing trend is to provide a warm and inviting communal area for those who, more than anything, need to feel safe and comfortable. This has seen the marked influence of colour, texture, light and space to create wards and reception spaces that can almost feel like home.

This industry-wide initiative minimises the distress and emotional disruption that can affect patients and their families. Digital touchdown bases for communal areas, along with coffee shops, outlets and shops are being incorporated into the traditional secondary care premises to improve the quality of experience for those visiting, helping frequent and long-term patients feel some semblance of day-to-day life.

The practical benefits of these measures, particularly in the improvement of mood in long-term and children’s wards, are present in the patient experience feedback and cannot be understated. The use of colour can create a soothing ambience and mark out bright, easily-discernible spaces to aid the visually impaired and assist with general wayfinding, working on both a practical and emotional level.

This intersects with the patient participation ethos, which sees our team work with healthcare professionals and patients to ensure pieces seamlessly slot into life for patients with mental illnesses or limited physical capabilities. This can mean adjustable heights and positions for those with injuries or disabilities, as well as resilient models with secure bolts - or none at all - for patients that might be prone to dissembling them and potentially using them to inflict damage.

Infection control has become another major component of the furniture design process, with healthcare developments relying on simple, hygienic products to guarantee safety for patients and simplicity for cleaning staff. There has been a marked rise in demand for one-piece shells on seats, resized cushions that can be removed for vacuum cleaning, and wipe-clean surfaces that maintain clean, safe and efficient seating areas.

Making sure that furniture solutions are cost efficient and durable remains one of the highest priorities throughout the design process. During a period where finances are tight for the NHS, designers and healthcare professionals are challenged to pool brainpower to create new materials and design techniques that are capable of adapting and lasting for years.

During a period where finances are tight for the NHS, designers and healthcare professionals are challenged to pool brainpower to create new materials and design techniques that are capable of adapting and lasting for years

This has tied into the NHS’s growing focus on sustainability, with premises expected to meet BREEAM standards as well as a number of other energy efficient stipulations. Sustainable, recyclable furniture pieces and eco-efficient premises deliver a vital service in reducing the energy output of a development, supporting savings as well as promoting an environmentally-friendly approach to design.

So what next for healthcare design? Though the 5YFV has outlined plans for more funding, hospitals still face a daunting task when it comes to managing costs wherever possible. The focus, therefore, need not be solely on funding, but should look at how the vision for integrated, universal healthcare spaces can offer more from smaller premises.

By planning spaces to relax in, be treated in, have a coffee or a consultation in, hospitals can do more with less – and, if the current trends are anything to go by, can make sure the people that use them are happy and comfortable for the duration of their stay.

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