How to Design Healthcare Facilities to Meet Women’s Needs
Architect and healthcare design expert Mitra Memari on building inclusive, flexible environments that inspire trust
Did you know the first large-scale U.S. study devoted to women’s health was only launched around thirty years ago? It was in 1991, courtesy of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
That’s not lost on Mitra Memari, ZGF partner and former president of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) According to her, that statistic “gives you a perspective of how little the care for women was differentiated,” until quite recently in the healthcare industry.
For centuries, women were ignored as an occupant or user group in design. Half the population was simply treated as smaller versions of men, she says.
Fortunately, Memari says it’s more commonly acknowledged now “that women and individuals from marginalized communities have needs that are very different from the dominant culture. The nuances of what it means to be a female have been more revealed, and we're seeing more female-centric facilities.”
For instance, Medical City Healthcare has invested $17 million to update facilities and expand care for mothers and newborns in McKinney, Texas. And USA Health in Alabama added a 20-suite postpartum unit at Children’s & Women’s Hospital in Mobile. These are just two examples of many projects in the works.
Other advances in women’s healthcare are accelerating as well, including clinical research, innovation, and design approaches.
According to McKinsey and Co., women account for 80% of consumer purchasing decisions in the healthcare industry. It’s an indication of the shift away from thinking of women as “a niche market and a mere subset of healthcare.”
Design features to enhance women’s healthcare experiences
This change in mindset will also change the way these spaces are created. Memari specializes in healthcare design and has worked on several female-centric facilities.
Before starting a project, she asks herself three questions:
01. What is the patient demographic?
02. What elements in the built environment inspire trust?
03. How can the space be most welcoming?
When designing a healthcare space that caters to women — perhaps a women’s and children’s hospital or a reproductive health center — Memari says these questions are best answered collaboratively. This includes consultation with the occupant group in question.
“Sometimes designers think we know it all,” she continues. “I think we really need to rely on our communities.”
Since women are more likely to be caregivers, Memari says family-centered care can be important to many female patients. This could include spacious exam areas and waiting rooms.
“A lot of times, women have to visit their doctors with a large group,” she explains, bringing children or older relatives.
And for longer stays — for instance a children’s hospital — “siblings (also need space) to play and not be in the room with all the medical equipment.”
The option of privacy is also often essential, especially in postpartum environments.
Memari points out that patients experiencing difficult childbirth or loss may feel uncomfortable in crowded rooms that include other families celebrating a healthy infant.
Additionally, many aspects of maternal bonding are intimate. Bottle feeding or breastfeeding an infant for the first time is a period when moms might appreciate privacy.
To facilitate experiences like these, Memari and her team are creating spaces at the University Health Women's and Children's Hospital in San Antonio that elevate care, including private birthing areas and rooms for grieving families.
Warm and comforting environments
The San Antonio facility will also include graphics from local artists and finishes inspired by the city’s parks, as a nod to local culture and natural resources, which makes rooms feel warmer and more welcoming.
Inclusive design features can also inspire trust in an environment. This is particularly important to women who have historically been taken less seriously than men in medical scenarios.
For instance, chairs and countertop heights can be more inclusive by “having a variety of furniture styles and types for different body types to feel comfortable,” Memari says.
A hospitality approach
At The University of Arizona Cancer Center, Memari and her team created a wig boutique for chemotherapy patients experiencing hair loss, which offered a sense of privacy and care for their emotional wellbeing. “It was kind of like you're going into a special space that felt like a luxury hotel.”
Wood finishes and mood lighting made the space feel welcoming. Each clinic at the center got to pick their color palette — and no one picked hospital white. “The whole concept was hospitality,” she says. “We didn’t want anything clinical.”
Utilizing a hospitable design approach can make women and other marginalized communities feel more comfortable, which in turn helps to build trust.
Build flexibility into female-centric healthcare spaces
There is a design approach for female-centric healthcare spaces that also addresses the needs of all other demographics. It’s the creation of flexible and more easily adaptable spaces. This helps reduce costly, time-consuming renovations of critical healthcare facilities.
In San Antonio, the Women’s & Children’s Hospital features 30 patient rooms on each of its 12 floors. But all rooms can easily be converted into Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) or other infection prevention spaces if needed, says Memari.
She explains that doors were built to accommodate positive or negative air pressure flow in and out of rooms. This enables healthcare providers to keep pathogens in or out of a space, and supports the infection control required in a NICU
As well, a dedicated mechanical system on each floor (usually there’s only one per structure), makes it easier to renovate a single floor at a time — because you can update mechanical requirements for that space, without impacting the rest of the building, she says.
It’s better to make changes to a small area than to disrupt an entire building full of patients, after all, Memari notes.
And while this approach is great for the provision of women-centric healthcare, more inclusive, flexible spaces that build trust in the communities they serve, lead to facilities that everyone feels more comfortable in, she says.
“I think that’s for the betterment of all of us.”
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