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Designing wellness communities to focus on integrated healthcare—reducing costs naturally

June 17, 2019

By Maria Ionescu

Purpose-designed healthcare buildings with a focus on integrative medical care will help us address chronic disease management

Human well-being should be measured by more than heartbeats or blood tests. For a medical center to be truly patient-centered, we need to create environments that decrease stress and fear at all stages of a patient’s medical journey. The best way to do this is by blurring the lines between natural human-centered space and the technology-enhanced, sterile requirements for medical treatment rooms and hospital wards.  

Today’s reality is that quality of space tends to increase only as medical conditions get critical—cancer treatments, not check-ups. At the same time, medical technologies continue to advance, increasing the perception that healthcare delivery is impersonal and even frightening.

If we focus on treating symptoms in sterile technology-driven environments and away from caring for people, a patient’s feelings of fear and stress will destabilize their overall health. It will also affect hospital staff and physicians. We must never lose sight of our intrinsic human needs of beauty, connection to nature, and personalized, compassionate care.

Creating environments that decrease stress and fear at all stages of a patient’s medical journey is critical to wellness design. Pictured: University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Passavant.

Because the mind-body connection is so important, integrative medical care will help us address one of the most significant healthcare issues challenging us today—chronic disease management.

Nearly half of all Americans suffer from one or more chronic conditions. By treating chronic disease when it is too late to prevent significant medical intervention, annual healthcare costs in America have grown to over $10,000 per person. A solution: Complementary holistic and alternative healthcare is becoming a recognized component of our evolving medical equation.

Transforming medical centers to wellness communities

Healthcare planning and design needs to strike the right balance between technology and empathy. One way to do this is by providing spaces that foster unmediated human contact and a connection to nature.

Healthcare planning needs to strike the right balance between technology and empathy by providing spaces that foster unmediated human contact and a connection to nature.

We are seeking to do this by working with caregivers and healthcare developers to transform obsolete hospital facilities into medical work-share spaces. Instead of turning outdated facilities into behavioral units, limited-time observation units, or conventional clinics with no connections to nature, this new model looks beyond current thinking—moving us toward creating total wellness communities for purposeful healthcare.

Our ongoing research on medical work-share complexes is helping us identify ways to improve our system. The work-share model gives providers a choice, offering the affordability and flexibility needed by doctors, dentists, chiropractors, physical therapists, alternative-healing providers, and others providing complementary services. These work-share complexes also have administrative functions and facilities including conference rooms, exercise facilities, and yoga/meditation spaces.

The programming of these complexes can be broadened to connect spaces throughout the site to create large gardens and beautifully designed multifunctional spaces. Reflection and connection are both known to decrease our body’s stress response.

Doctors who seek more freedom in their medical practice are also interested in work-shared space.

With the cost of private practice escalating, largely because of increased legal and administrative requirements, most new doctors opt to join large healthcare groups. These groups focus on efficiency and cost-cutting, requiring doctors to diagnose and treat symptoms within set time constraints. By limiting time with the patient, they are less able to build trusting relationships.

Thus, systemic issues that negatively impact a patient’s quality of life are going unnoticed and untreated. The inability to provide holistic care to patients, combined with the burden of excess administrative requirements, is affecting the mental and spiritual wholeness of many doctors.

Prevention is much less expensive than treatment. That can impact design decisions, like including attractive workout facilities as part of a wellness community. Pictured: Bell Gateway Centre at CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), Toronto, Ontario.

Prevention vs. cure?

“He who cures a disease may be the skillfullest, but he that prevents it is the safest physician.” —Thomas Fuller

Taking a cue from Thomas Fuller, it’s important to recognize that prevention is much less expensive than treatment. That is especially true for chronic conditions related primarily to lifestyle factors. Even insurance providers and medical professionals are acknowledging the efficacy of alternative care on patients suffering chronic disease.

As planners and designers, we need to work with clients to determine the best way to bring patients, traditional medical doctors, and alternative-care practitioners together. The challenge is creating affordable and flexible space for alternative-care practitioners and education programs.

By evaluating models where medical services are run side by side with lifestyle services, we can understand the significant benefits of integrative medical practices.

The combination of traditional, alternative care, creative-expression programs, and immersive connections to nature can result in communities that provide warmth and connection through person-to-person relationships. That is essential to mental and spiritual well-being. We can never improve the overall physical health of those suffering chronic conditions without addressing the issues that are causing the problems.

  • Maria Ionescu

    Maria is a senior medical planner, architect, and leader in the field of holistic healthcare design. She’s worked in North America, the UK, and Singapore, and her core goal is to make multi-purpose healthcare spaces that serve patients better.

    Contact Maria
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