Ratcliff Architecture News

Humanizing Healthcare: The Interior Designer as Patient Advocate

By Lynn Drover, Terrie Kurrasch, Ruth Preucel and Bonnie Thomas

At the programming meeting for a new radiology department, the client insisted on eliminating the waiting room. The architect was prepared to accept the client’s request and move forward with planning the treatment rooms. The interior designer pressed on, asking why the radiologists wanted to push patients away. The surprising answer: A growing immigrant population, forced in their former countries to demand treatment for their families, often became disruptive. If they experienced a delay, the patient’s family had a tendency to raise their voices and bang on the reception desk, demanding immediate treatment. Of course, these unpleasant experiences for the staff and other patients were the basis for the recommended elimination of the waiting room. 


The interior designer offered a compromise: Private consultation rooms could be located adjacent to the waiting room. This would provide an opportunity to maintain a gracious greeting environment for all patients while escorting disruptive patient families away when necessary.

Interior design professionals bring much more to the table than knowledge of color, lighting and finishes.  According to the National Council for Interior Design Qualification, the practice incorporates theories and understanding of human behavior in the formulation of space plans and design concepts. Applying this awareness of human behavior, interior designers inform the evidence-based layout of a new building in compassionate ways. They add a humane approach to healthcare design, looking out for the needs and desires of patients, families, and hospital staff who may be stressed, weak or worried. 

Integrating Interior Design in the Planning Process

Often when an architectural firm meets with a client in the planning and pre-design stage, the firm requests representation from a myriad of the hospital’s specialists: admitting clerks, nurses, physicians, surgeons, radiologists, cashiers, administrators, and so on. We suggest that the firm come equally prepared with their team of experts: architects, planners, healthcare consultants, and, especially, interior designers. The symbiotic relationship between architect and interior designer will enrich the information-gathering process. 

When designing a new healthcare building, architects address external boundaries such as set backs, sidewalks, codes, and regulations. Interior designers work from the inside out, focusing on how staff and patients feel in the space. Often, architects and healthcare executives try to squeeze their programming needs into a space that is not large enough to accommodate them. The interior designer’s job is to push back from the inside, to ensure that the allotted space is expanded to accommodate the programmatic requirements. 

If the process is two-tracked (architecture first, interiors second), redundancy and frustration over change orders can occur. When these priorities are addressed simultaneously in the planning process, a wonderful back and forth dialogue ensues, resulting in a design that addresses all concerns. 

Interior Design Refinements

Incorporating interior design early in the planning process will ensure that healthcare environments are meeting the needs of both the patient and the staff. Consider how differently a hospital might function if the following six design elements were not refined by an interior designer.

  • Communications: Are pay phones located along a busy corridor? Is there a private location for nurses and doctors to offer patient education and home care instruction? Where can a stressed-out hospital employee find a place “off-stage” for solitude and a good cry? 
  • Ergonomics: Is the hospital designed to human scale? Do all workstations allow for individual flexibility? In addition to ergonomic chairs, are there height-adjustable desks and expandable computer screen wall mounts?
  • Lighting: Are waiting room lights positioned correctly for people to read in a sitting position? How can the incandescent intensity be adjusted to accommodate the circadian rhythm requirements of patients and the work lighting requirements of nurses? What are the finishes that will be reflecting the light and how will that reflection affect patients and hospital staff?
  • Wayfinding: Is the reception desk too high for someone in a wheelchair to see the receptionist?  Which non-verbal clues, such as lighting and the curvature of walls, help lead a patient to the correct department? If wayfinding is based on a color-coded system, how does the color-blind patient locate the correct department?
  • Acoustics: Does the hospital intend to capture sound with acoustic wall panels? With every inch of hospital space at a premium, the interior designer must remind the architect to leave room in the corridor plans to insert the acoustic panels post-construction.
  • Human Connections: Does the cashier’s desk have a shelf to help people balance their checkbooks? Does the staff lounge offer space for one nurse to experience a private moment while a group gathers around the corner for a gregarious lunch?

Interior designers focus on space that is flexibly functional, space that can accommodate healthcare’s innovations in the years to come. Above all else, interior designers focus on how space interacts with the human body and vice-versa. Their contributions to the planning process contribute to an environment that encompasses not only the hospital’s business requirements, but, more importantly, its healing mission. 

Lynn Drover, Terrie Kurrasch, Ruth Preucel and Bonnie Thomas are healthcare specialists at RATCLIFF, an architecture, interiors and planning firm.