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Proton therapy design (Part 1): Putting the patient experience first

May 19, 2022

By Paula Williams

Experiential design offers a humanistic perspective for treatment center design

Conversations about proton therapy center design often focus on technology. There’s good reason for this. The specialized equipment they require necessitates special design factors. And integration of the vendor’s requirements into the facility’s infrastructure is a key aspect of the design. Plus, the proton technology itself is constantly changing. The vendor requirements, the rigging, shielding requirements, and cost are things that make a proton center unique.

None of those things overshadow that a proton therapy center is about healthcare. It is a cancer treatment facility. Proton therapy serves people whose lives have been fundamentally altered by a cancer diagnosis. 

Baptist Health South Florida Proton Center, where the center is included within a comprehensive cancer center.

Proton therapy can be intimidating, even scary, for patients when they are at their most vulnerable. They’re likely unfamiliar with the large and powerful technology behind the curtain. And patients spend a lot of time at treatment centers. Whether the patient is visiting the center for an exam, clinical consultation, follow-up, or imaging appointment, proton therapy requires numerous repeated visits. Depending on the specific treatment plan, the patient will visit the proton therapy center every day for a series of weeks—as often as daily for a period of four to six weeks.

Consider patient experience

Design for proton centers should take a humanistic approach that places patient experience at the center, values patient comfort, and supports compassionate care. Experiential design means the design of the healthcare building influences the overall well-being of the visitor.

Fundamentally, this approach understands that quality of space is important and that design can enhance care while considering factors such as neurodiversity. This approach considers acoustical and thermal comfort and lighting, air quality and materials that promote wellness for the patient and those that accompany them on their journey. With patient experience in mind, we can design thoughtfully and create a place of comfort and well-being. Seen through the lens of patient experience, a different set of priorities emerge for the space.

The Johns Hopkins Proton Therapy Center in Washington, DC, which provides space for caregivers in addition to patients.

Engage the senses in patient spaces

The built environment contributes to the overall patient experience. Clear, colorful wayfinding can soothe a patient and simplify their navigation through the space. We can create an atmosphere of comfort and familiarity with art and music. We should seek out opportunities to create surprise and offer elements that produce happiness and joy.

Provide for family members

Often, it’s family members who take on the caregiver or advocate role for those receiving proton treatment. Their involvement influences the long-term health of patients. It’s critical to provide them with spaces that are not only comfortable but flexible and contain useful resources.

Visitors should have choices—relax in quiet lounge or take advantage of amenities that encourage education, community, and holistic healing, for example. Exam rooms should comfortably support the family as well as the patient.

With patient experience in mind, we can design thoughtfully and create a place of comfort and well-being.

Reflect the institution’s culture of care

Each healthcare institution or provider has its own culture and approach to patient care. The physical environment we design should reflect this culture of care and institutional preferences while accommodating the needs and expectations of the patient. Spaces should encourage formal and informal connections between clinical researchers, physicians, and their patients.

Incorporate technology to empower patients

Technology will be a touch point for the patient’s journey from their first connection with the institution to a virtual consultation and in the remote registration and scheduling process. Design should allow the patient to maintain this technology touchpoint during the examination and treatment section of the journey. It should give the caregiver, technician, and patient the option to engage virtually or to display information on the appropriate media to enable discussion and include third parties as needed.

Choosing the right technology and implementing supportive changes to workflows can also allow patients to take ownership over their visit. A personal itinerary and an RFID badge can replace traditional waiting rooms with opportunities for positive distraction and purposeful time spent.

Creating the right approach for patients

By tracing the patient journey one stage at a time with the above dimensions in mind, we can apply a humanist approach to proton therapy center design and create places that promote comfort and healing.

In part two of this blog series, we examine the proton therapy patient journey stage by stage and its design implications.

  • Paula Williams

    Paula has more than 30 years of hands-on architecture experience in proton therapy, healthcare, higher education, and commercial projects.

    Contact Paula
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