By Luke Carlson, AIA, NCARB, Project Architect

Does anyone love going to the hospital? The experience of a hospital trip – whether you’re in need of help or visiting someone – usually fits somewhere between going to the airport and visiting the DMV. Everyone seems to ignore you, there are weird smells and sounds, and all you want is a place to relax and scan your phone.

A hospital’s primary function is to provide medical and surgical treatment to those who are sick or injured. The design of a medical facility is based on decisions such as site logistics, owner and user requests, code requirements, state regulations, existing conditions, and engineering issues, to name just a few.

Common spaces for visitors, family, and guests are included but usually don’t demand the same attention as spaces that serve the hospital’s main purpose. However, as hospitals are focusing more and more on patient experience they also need to think about the impact design has on common spaces and, in turn, families and other visitors. What are some principal ideas that should be carefully considered when designing these spaces?

Waiting Areas

Waiting areas are horrible. Why? Because we must wait in them. Like airports, hospital waiting areas are stressful spaces. Unlike airports, these areas are where one waits for updates on what could literally be life-or-death matters. Typically, these spaces include chairs, televisions, plants, and tables with old magazines. Yet simple design solutions can enhance these areas, helping family members and visitors deal with the agony of time passing. Large windows, nice views, and good circulation are all features that can turn this dreaded space into something that’s tolerable. Small amenities like USB connections, numerous electrical outlets, good lighting, comfortable chairs, work tables, and private areas can make a waiting area a place where other tasks can be performed while we pass the time.

Signage

Have you ever been “lost” in a hospital? Where did I park my car? What room is my mother in? Where can I get some food or a drink? Hospitals are complicated buildings. Most have additions and renovations that have been built over decades. This design direction is necessary to avoid shutting down hospital spaces for extended periods but creates complicated layouts. Having good signage throughout your facility helps overcome this issue. Whether a hospital is a complicated cavern of interwinding spaces or a new building, signage helps a person get to they need to go. Visible colors, clear fonts, and purposeful locations are all important when creating a coherent signage package for a hospital. When visitors can easily see where to go, stress is lessened since they know how to get “there.”

Color and Convenience

Hospitals accommodate two groups of people – those who need help and those who are visiting those who need help. Balancing the needs of both groups is an art unto itself. Medical facilities have a reputation for being sterile and drab environments. They are also perceived as not having conveniences common to hospitality spaces. Color and convenience can improve the hospital experience. Creating design solutions using bold color palettes, comfortable fabrics and furniture systems, and unique spaces like privacy and work areas enhance these facilities. Adding conveniences such as coffee vendors, restaurant-style dining, good circulation throughout buildings, and free Wi-Fi brings value to the building itself and creates a perception that the facility is here to not just help the patient but also the patient’s loved ones.

Hospitals are complicated in not only what they do but also how they are designed. Including design solutions that improve the patient and visitor experience will create a place where people will still dread to come but will be cared for when they arrive.