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6 design approaches that humanize cancer care amid technology advances

March 21, 2023

By Catherine Zeliotis

Cancer diagnosis and treatment is stressful. The right design decisions can aid patients, families, and hospital staff.

A version of this blog originally appeared as “Humanizing cancer care” in Design Quarterly Issue 17: New Design Essentials.

In recent decades, the headlines around cancer care have centered on technological advancements in treatment and the emergence of stand-alone cancer centers to meet demand. New technology, new treatments, clinical trials, and applied research are influencing the design for cancer care spaces.

Design for cancer centers, which we now see stretching out to facilities spanning more than 1 million square feet, has been about keeping pace with new technology and making sure that treatment can be accessed efficiently. Accommodating this technology requires us to take an empathetic approach that prioritizes the human experience—that of patient, caregiver, team, and family—at the core of the design.

The National Center for Cancer Care and Research in Doha, Qatar. The facility was designed with a focus on the integration of architecture, art, light, and nature.

Cancer diagnosis and treatment is a stressful experience. Patients and their supporting family members experience fear, anxiety, and stress. The staff is stressed, too. That makes retention a significant issue for cancer care providers and hospitals. By focusing on humanizing and enhancing the cancer center experience for all users we can promote well-being and comfort, while reducing stress.

Here are six design approaches to help all that use cancer care facilities.

1. Creating a journey

Cancer patients are on a journey. We must view the treatment center design from their perspective. We must balance this journey against the demands for technology and efficiency that come with cancer care. But we’re always looking to create a certain level of comfort that can positively influence the patient and their family when they’re most vulnerable. This can require challenging perceived efficiency solutions to create spaces that speak to the human scale. These humanizing touches are greatly appreciated and elevate a design solution from good to great.

We start with the entry. How do we make that welcoming and not overwhelming? We want to create a first step in the patient journey that sets the tone for the experience to come. If we reduce stress here, we are on the right track.

The Cleveland Clinic’s Taussig Cancer Center in Cleveland, Ohio, is organized by cancer type. It allows patients to have all their appointments in one area. (Stantec/William Rawn Associates)

2. Finding views to nature, maximizing daylighting, and natural ventilation

We want a design to provide access to views of nature, landscape, or even small pockets of green space in an urban setting to reduce stress and promote well-being. And we believe providing users with access to daylight promotes healing and comfort. In the United Kingdom, where code allows it, we promote natural ventilation and rooms with operable windows.

3. Creating spaces for consultation and rest

We aim to create nonclinical spaces for consultation and rest along the patient journey. At Guy’s Hospital, we teamed with Rogers Stirk Harbor + Partners, who designed the first Maggie’s Center in the UK. It is a charity that supplies nonclinical spaces for cancer support where patients can talk, think, and consult on their treatment. At Guy’s and subsequent projects, we incorporated support spaces for nonclinical aspects of cancer care consultation. This could include access to a small terrace where a discussion with or among family members can comfortably occur.

Cancer caregivers consistently ask us for spaces where they can grab 10 minutes to themselves to gather their thoughts and recharge.

Today, healthcare is all about change, flexibility, and adaptability—because health science and treatment never sit still.

4. Making rational, agile, flexible spaces

Today, healthcare is all about change, flexibility, and adaptability—because health science and treatment never sit still. Through a thoughtful and future-forward design approach to cancer care buildings, we create solutions that respond to the patient experience but are also very agile. The healthcare institution must be able to reconfigure spaces as treatment and equipment evolve. We can’t design bespoke structure systems that respond only to today’s needs.

We must think a decade or more ahead and future proof these healthcare spaces. But just how flexible do these spaces need to be? It’s important to discuss the options as a part of the design process. Does the institution want to over specify a space to ensure that it can be easily adapted in the future? For instance, that it can be converted to a treatment room. These are just a few factors for future-ready design.

Once we’ve established a common goal for the facility’s future adaptability, we build in the right level of flexibility through our design approach to services (water, vacuum, gases, power, network, etc.), which account for roughly 40 percent of the costs for a new hospital today. How we service an area can determine how hard it will be to adapt to a new use? At Guy’s, our innovative solution included modular service towers that reach every floor so that extending and adapting services to rooms as needed won’t be costly or disruptive. This approach supplied the high level of flexibility our client wanted.

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The Cleveland Clinic’s Taussig Cancer Center. (Stantec/William Rawn Associates)

5. The nature of care and community

Cancer treatment requires repeat visits that can sometimes span years. Patients and their families will return to a cancer center again and again. From this viewpoint, cancer care facilities offer a significant opportunity to make a difference in lives, by achieving a design that resonates with patients and their communities. This long-term relationship also affords designers many chances for harvesting design input from the users of the space.

At both Guy’s and Arthur J.E. Child Comprehensive Cancer Centre, patients joined us for design concept meetings from the word go and well into design development. The long-term aspect of this care also allows a community to grow with camaraderie and connection. We carefully consider spaces that allow patients to connect with their peers and draw strength from shared experiences and the greater support community.

6. Transparency and connection

Cancer centers are hubs for cancer research, with staff regularly conducting clinical trials. This research aspect informs our efforts to increase cancer care visibility and accessibility. Cancer researchers want to attract patients to join their clinical trials. At the Cancer Centre at Guy’s Hospital, we organized the hospital in five vertically stacked “villages,” each with its own distinct identity relating to a particular patient need or clinical function. We designed the villages for transparency. Each has its own three-story atrium, reception, waiting area, and access to the outside space.

A welcome point in the Chemotherapy Village at the Cancer Centre at Guy’s Hospital, in London, United Kingdom. (Rogers Stirk Harbor + Partners/Stantec)

Each village has its own color that is expressed both in the interior design and in the external facade for enhanced wayfinding. The chemotherapy village includes, apart from patient areas, a research floor that focuses on breast cancer and conducts clinical trials. The research areas are clearly visible from the waiting area and village entry. We discovered this level of transparency benefited patients, visitors, and researchers in unexpected ways.

Patients were more open to trial participation and had a stronger sense they were being treated with the latest and greatest available methods because the researchers were visible to them and their families from the moment they reached reception. The staff said rather than being hidden in the lab, they felt seen by the patients, which gave them a feeling that their research was relevant and meaningful to people. It inspired them daily.

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  • Catherine Zeliotis

    Catherine works on major healthcare facilities and addresses the challenges of combining functional efficiency with supportive environments for patients and staff.

    Contact Catherine
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