Design Can Step in Where the American Health Care System Falls Short

At Metropolis's Washington D.C. Think Tank in December, hosted by Gensler, panelists—ranging from architects to a politician—discussed how to design for a healthier America.

Think Tank Healthcare Gensler

Gensler’s Unity Healthcare Brentwood for Sunbrella Research. Courtesy Sunbrella/Wray Ward

According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. outspent every other OECD country on health care in 2015, with per capita expenditures of $9,024. Speaking at a Think Tank event on December 6 at the Washington, D.C., office of Gensler on the state of the American health-care system, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said, “We spend two and a half times what other countries [do], and we get the worst output.” He doesn’t believe the U.S. can spend (or cut) its way toward better health, and suggests mindfulness instead. “It provides an opportunity to slow your mind down,” he said. “From a professional standpoint, [it facilitates] seeing how things can fit together—to focus on the connection between our food system, our agriculture system, and our health and wellness.”

Ryan’s comments set the tone for a conversation led by Metropolis director of design innovation Susan S. Szenasy on health-care technology, designing for wellness, and human interaction.

“As you’re thinking forward, how many people are thinking that [they’d] like to go into long-term care in a nursing home?” asked Dr. Adam Darkins, president and CEO of Empiricon. The question elicited chuckles, but Darkins has a point: People would rather age in their own homes than in assisted-care facilities, yet the way in which healthcare centers operate seldom aligns with this widespread preference.

“There’s no evidence that if you go into an outpatient clinic every three, six, nine, or 12 months, it does a blind bit of good,” Darkins said. “Why don’t you monitor people and teach them self-management about their conditions?” Darkins argued that teaching patients with chronic conditions how to self-monitor and self-regulate, combined with administering some services at home, can reduce the number of hospital visits and associated costs. According to trials he conducted with 50,000 veterans, in-home care, whether in person or via telemedicine, forges relationships and a sense of personal involvement that technology cannot replace.

Co-panelist Dr. Anoop Kumar, a Washington, D.C.–based emergency physician, dived deeper into physiology, expressing awe at the processes of the human body. “We think about technology in terms of gadgets that we hold, and oftentimes we miss out on the technology that we are: If I were to eat something, whatever I eat, it becomes Anoop,” he said. “And if you eat the same thing, it becomes you; it doesn’t become me.” That holistic thinking influences the way health-care design evolves: becoming less about building new hospitals than creating places for people to care for each other. Interior designer Tama Duffy Day, Gensler’s health and wellness leader, described a cancer center in Peoria, Illinois: “The oncologist is interested in teaching about health,” she said. “His treatment isn’t a be-all, it’s just a part of it. So we’re building a teaching kitchen and a walking area. We’re designing the space around the idea of healthy living by having the garden be the heart of this building.”

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Categories: Healthcare Architecture, Think Tank