Fast Company’s Hospital of the Future

Posted on April 19, 2010

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Visions of the future typically fall into the ‘talk is cheap’ category in my book. I appreciate them for the guts it takes to take a stab in the dark, but the people who make projections rarely get critiqued, and even when they are right, the idea guys are not often rewarded. Ultimately, there is nothing at stake because anyone can throw something out there with nothing to gain or lose; no one is keeping score for reliability. The economists who inflated the value of Enron never received censure, and then you get the factually-loose and laughable moments like Al Gore famously claiming he invented the Internet.

In February, Fast Company took a shot at projecting what we might see in the Hospital of the Future. The article is a two page spread, mostly a hospital diagram cutaway with labels that correspond to the twelve main idea components. It has a quotation from Perkins + Will’s Jean Mah, as well as nods to the USGBC in the intro. Interestingly, it identifies healthcare design as a $41 billion industry that “habitually neglects design elements such as access to daylight that have been shown to boost healing.”  This is damning, but true.

I will not assume Perkins+Will had anything to do with the oversight of the graphic or editorial content because it was fairly disappointing for me. I enjoy Fast Company’s insights into what is hot in the technology, design and entrepreneurial arenas and this piece was not quite up to par. The visual was mainly a way to tie in intelligence Fast Company had gathered on companies who might have an impact on part of the hospital, mainly through widgets they produce. So, this was really a component analysis, not so much a design projection.

What was notable for me was not where Fast Company fell short or was not believable (biodegradable disposable meal containers?!), but what it did show. I found the building’s exterior aesthetic interesting, industrial with the round windows and louvers, but with a wood-looking cladding—no concrete, no masonry, no overtly metal or high-technology feel. The design is pancaked, with floors alternating in fenestration and, most likely, function; not efficient, but of interest nonetheless, because it breaks up the monolithic nature that most hospitals take on.

Roof gardens seem like a no brainer for a very underutilized space in most every healthcare project. Support services like laundry and the cafeteria also received some attention. And, some notes touched on concepts we have seen surface in industry conferences the last five years, like more virtual doctor consultations, electronic medical records, and family as care-giving participants. I guess for how insightful Fast Company is with its articles on consumer behavior, how companies form and reorganize to adapt to changes in the marketplace, and the proven innovation at both small and large companies regardless of industry, I felt there could have been more substance to what was shown.

Yet, it did not take a well-researched tome to shed light on some major shortcomings in healthcare design. What is inexcusable is not being more sustainable in an industry that is extremely consumptive, waste-producing and harsh in its use of chemicals in operations.  It is also not acceptable to not use evidence-based design in every project, to not employ the science that proves the benefits of daylight, views, minimized exposure to annoying sounds, specific color palettes, effective artwork, gardens and access to outdoor spaces.  Even Alvar Aalto designed around daylight, natural ventilation and outdoor terraces for patients in his successful Paimio Sanatorium in 1932.

As designers, developers, owners and operators, we need to insist on using what we know, or have known, for decades. I would argue not designing around existing knowledge and research is self-defeating and thus not adhering to the Hippocratic Oath to “first, do no harm”.  We must have courage and build for both the best outcomes of today’s patient, as well as the community, and environment it inherits, in the future.

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