The Evolution of Human-Centric Design in Oncology Spaces

Changing Trends in Oncology Treatment

The ways in which oncology treatment is being delivered are changing. In line with a wider paradigm shift amongst healthcare providers, oncology facilities are joining the movement towards improving overall care quality and prioritizing the patient experience. Adopting a human-centric design in oncology helps to optimize outcomes and streamline the patient treatment journey. Facilities that go above and beyond in providing a human-centric care experience can set themselves apart as care providers, owing to “patient experience emerging as the biggest differentiator among oncology programs.” In practice, this means expanding the standard spectrum of available care services for oncology patients. Ancillary and support services are taking on more substantial roles in patient care, helping to provide a more holistic and customizable treatment path. This means giving patients access to pharmacies, financial counseling, and social services within or close to oncology facilities.

By 2040, the number of new cancer cases per year is projected to rise to 29.5 million, and the number of related deaths to 16.4 million. It is more important than ever that healthcare providers seek to transition away from rigid and inefficient oncology spaces, recognizing that as treatments evolve, so too must facilities and treatment spaces. Instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach, treatment programs are more effective when taking a personalized, patient-specific approach that seeks to match diagnoses and treatments more closely with each patient’s specific case. These measures are intended to create a holistic, collaborative approach to oncology treatments, encouraging patients to “treat the researchers and doctors as partners in their care, rather than dictators instructing them on how to beat cancer.” Collaboration and adaptability here are themes that are growing in importance.

How Human-Centric Design in Oncology Spaces Can Aid Treatment

Room size and layout, traffic flows, equipment spacing, and interior design can all have significant impacts on the effectiveness of treatment spaces. Designers and healthcare staff are trying to shake off the association between hospitals and care centers with sterile décor and cold, unwelcoming patient areas. Increasingly, natural features, such as healing gardens, are incorporated into facility design to help create calming and beautiful waiting and treatment spaces. Similarly, encouraging the flow of natural light into facilities helps patients and staff feel rejuvenated and alert whilst reducing reliance on intense and lurid artificial lighting, which may be overstimulating for patients undergoing intensive treatments such as chemotherapy. The creation of beautiful outdoor spaces encourages patients to wander and explore while evoking feelings of calm and aiding recovery.

RIOS designed a transformative space focused on wellness and collaboration for Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine. Image via RIOS.

At the Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine in Los Angeles, patients are encouraged to peruse and wander through sculpture gardens whilst waiting to be seen. To expedite proceedings, patients wear geo-tracking devices so that they can be easily located by nurses when their doctor is ready to attend to them. In a similar vein, artwork and art installations are becoming more highly valued in healthcare facilities as a means of creating a serene and pleasant environment. While not a novel design technique, the palette of colors used within oncology spaces can be used to promote healing and feelings of well-being. Calm, pale colors in waiting rooms create tranquil spaces without overstimulating, and examination rooms employ a more homey palette to help patients feel at ease. Cafes and communal areas may be colored more brightly or energetically to encourage interaction and liveliness. Conversely, respite areas for staff and patients make use of more muted tones.

Human-Centric Design Features to Improve Patient Outcomes in Oncology

Traditionally, oncology spaces (and healthcare spaces more generally) have been perceived as cold and uninviting. Healthcare providers are eager to change this perception to help get patients through the doors and provide a seamless guest experience, thereby smoothing outpatient journeys and encouraging retention. Instead, “the building itself can play a role in a patient’s care if it addresses their relationship to the facility and becomes adaptable as treatment needs change.” There are several ways in which spaces can be designed to empower guests, thereby reducing stress and improving engagement with care.

The location and accessibility of check-in areas are important, especially for oncology patients who may need to visit the facility on a daily or weekly basis. Being able to easily and independently check into the facility, as well as enter and exit efficiently, helps streamline routine appointments and alleviates stress. Additionally, waiting rooms are an important arena in the patient care journey, and it is important to create a warm and open space that accommodates guests while promoting conversation and interaction. It is important for patients and caregivers that waiting areas be located centrally to ensure ease of accessibility to treatment and research spaces. Co-locating these areas with amenities encourages patients to explore the facility and creates a level of familiarity, as well as providing access to nearby services that can aid recovery and treatment such as pharmacies, education spaces, or wellness and massage facilities. Clustering important patient areas together reduce transit time and create a familiar setting, increasing comfortability and the likelihood of appointment attendance.  

Designating areas for patient education that are separate from chemo treatment spaces, as well as other guests, is important in supporting and empowering patients to get the help they need in a calm and non-confronting space. Every treatment journey is unique, therefore designing human-centric spaces that can be used to support individuals at each stage is crucial in meeting oncology patients wherever they are on the care continuum. Giving patients options along this journey is important, and promotes empowerment – having multiple treatment spaces available, for example, can allow patients to choose between a private or communal infusion space depending on preferences and needs. Keeping the patient experience at the core of design choices can have a significant impact on the treatment journey and outcomes, even in measures as simple as distancing employee lounges or cafeterias away from treatment spaces to avoid overstimulating patients undergoing chemo.

Design Features to Improve Staff Experience and Care Quality

Clinical staff spend substantial amounts of time within healthcare facilities, and their needs must also be considered for optimal outcomes when designing oncology spaces. Spaces of respite for staff are crucial to optimal clinical functioning and promoting both physical and mental rest. These spaces need to be calming and restorative while being located conveniently close to clinical spaces. As well as resting spaces, collaboration and consultation rooms are needed to accommodate private conversations between staff and promote interactions with ancillary services. Healthcare facilities may lack dedicated collaboration or huddle spaces, making it more difficult for clinicians to collaborate across departments. Each facility’s needs will be unique depending on the type of care that is administered – staff may benefit from decentralized work stations or hot desks, for example. Designing a space that accommodates tasks performed rather than staff roles helps treatment programs and caregivers to adapt more quickly when needed. Staff can move to the most appropriate zone in the workspace to carry out a task, rather than working in an assigned spot.

HGA designed this collaborative workspace for ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center with staff in mind, as well as patients. Image via HGA.

Designing program adjacencies into the facility works to reduce travel distances and unnecessary transit for staff and patients while promoting collaboration. Co-locating multidisciplinary staff eases the flow of appointments for patients, who can more easily be seen by multiple specialists in a single visit. This also works to give the reassurance that staff are working together in real-time, while simultaneously reducing delays and care handoffs. Reduction in transit times for staff will free up valuable clinical time and decrease burnout, especially when considering that most movement consists of clinicians locating one another to coordinate care handoffs. It is important to also consider the growing importance of telehealth. Telemedicine rooms increasingly need to be integrated into facility design, either through dedicated telehealth spaces, or agile exam rooms that can be converted when necessary.

There are a range of human-centric design features that can be built in oncology spaces to improve workflow for staff and help patients feel comfortable and empowered. Maintaining a human-centric approach when designing healthcare spaces is important in creating a space that is conducive to recovery and familiarity, whilst amplifying the efforts of staff by removing hindrances and allowing for respite.


For more information on the intersection of interior design and healthcare, listen to our Champions of Care podcast episode with Joanna Terry, Director of Vertical Markets at National Business Furniture.