In the emergency department at F.F. Thompson Hospital in Canandaigua, N.Y., architects with Francis Cauffman employed the latest innovations in evidence-based design, including color-coded storage cabinets on wheels. Each color represents the kind of medical supplies stored inside.
Don Pearce Photography In the emergency department at F.F. Thompson Hospital in Canandaigua, N.Y., architects with Francis Cauffman employed the latest innovations in evidence-based design, including color-coded storage cabinets on wheels. Each color represents the kind of medical supplies stored inside.

Most everyone, at some point in life, experiences an emergency room. For me, it was a gash on my forehead in the ninth grade that required stitches. By the time my mother and I navigated our way through the parking garage, past baffling signage and the triage station, and finally landed in the waiting area, we had decided that the confusion was a way for the hospital to weed out patients—if you expired before reaching the doctors, they probably couldn't have helped you anyway.

Today, all of that is changing. As construction and renovation in the U.S. health care sector booms—it was a $41 billion industry in 2006—hospitals, and the architects who design them, must keep up with the latest research and technology if they want to stay competitive. From the mounting needs of aging baby boomers to the replacement of old infrastructure with all-digital facilities, market demands could push yearly health care construction to $60.1 billion by 2010.

Evidence-based design

Many of the advances in health care design today can be found in the emergency and trauma departments, where fast, effective service is paramount. Jim Crispino, president of Philadelphia-based firm Francis Cauffman, believes that the emergency department, or E.D. (the proper name for the E.R.), is a critical component of a hospital's overall success. Increasingly, the E.D. is the point of entry for patients, constituting their first experience in the hospital environment.

Crispino, who has been designing health care facilities for 20 years, says that the emergency department is fast becoming the hospital's new front door. “Usually for a regional medical center or a community hospital, 25 to 30 percent of people go to the emergency department first,” he says. “Of the people admitted to the hospital, over 50 percent are generally coming in from the emergency department.” As a result, notes Crispino, “clients are rethinking the relationship of the emergency department to the rest of the hospital.”

Francis Cauffman (which does 65 percent of its work in the health care sector) employs research staff to conduct independent studies on how the physical environment impacts patient outcomes and staff efficiency, from minimizing medical errors to improving patient well-being. This research-intensive approach, known as evidence-based design, is gaining momentum: At the International Conference and Exhibition on Health Facility Planning, Design, and Construction held in San Antonio in February, much of the program was dedicated to educating professionals on the uses and benefits of evidence-based strategies.

“For many clients, evidence-based design is becoming an expectation,” says Debra Levin, president of the Center for Health Design. In her 18 years at the nonprofit organization, which funds research, education, and advocacy on how the built environment affects health care outcomes, Levin has watched evidence-based design go from a small discipline at the fringes to a client necessity. “Clients don't always know exactly what it is or what it looks like, they just know they need it,” she says.

Decentralization

For the emergency department at F.F. Thompson Hospital in Canandaigua, N.Y., Francis Cauffman employed a number of research-based design strategies. Some focus on staff and patient well-being: Natural light, a rarity in an E.D., is admitted to all public spaces, treatment rooms, and staff work spaces. The patient treatment areas are private, and each has an individual thermostat that can be controlled by the patient or a family member. Gone are the cavernous waiting areas, replaced by more intimate spaces scattered throughout the department, where family members can wait, eat, or consult with physicians.

Decentralization is the new norm for staff areas as well. For instance, equipment is now stored in or outside of patient rooms, which cuts down on the time that staff spend looking for supplies. “Integration is the overriding theme influencing medical technologies,” says Crispino. “Traditional boundaries between imaging, surgical, and related patient care technologies are breaking down.”

Isolation

Isolation is also on the rise: At F.F. Thompson, the E.D. has an HVAC system separate from the rest of the hospital to prevent highly infectious diseases from spreading. Within the E.D., some individual rooms have an independent air-control system.

For the emergency department at Health Alliance's West Chester Medical Center in Cincinnati, currently under construction, RTKL proposed a design strategy based on the hospital's own advances in E.D. protocols. The hospital wanted to cut down on the time it took for patients to receive a diagnosis and treatment, so staff members devised a set of rules for responding to patient symptoms. If, for example, the patient comes in with chest pain, this kicks off a series of protocols that dictate tests and imaging before the doctor even arrives.