Designing to Heal – The Future of Healthcare Interior Design in the Middle East

A stay in the hospital, even if only for a few hours, is never an experience to look forward to. However,  in the past few years, the Middle East has witnessed a radical shift in the perspective toward the healthcare industry as well as the design of regional healthcare facilities. There’s an industry-wide movement that’s pushing designers and related decision makers to plan and design hospitals with a patient-centric approach; to treat patients with the same level of attention that a hotel would treat a guest. Owing to a focus on medical tourism and the general focus on top class infrastructure in the region, we’re now beginning to understand that holistic care and rehabilitation involves more than just the best doctors and machines. Our recent case study on the Valiant Clinic at the City Walk in Dubai is a stellar  example of this.

We interviewed leading design firms in the region to get gather their expert opinions on these new trends, and how the design community is keeping up them.

Changing Landscapes

Gold Coast Private Hospital by DWP - Healthcare Design Trends
Gold Coast Private Hospital by DWP

As the healthcare industry has evolved, facilities have now started to attract various regional and international patients — Dubai alone generated AED 1.4 Billion from medical tourists in the year 2016, with around 326,649 tourists visiting the emirate last year. “The biggest driver of the current on-going transformation from the dated, clinical and cold spaces to first-class, hospitality like environments is the recent focus on attracting medical tourism to the region”, says Richard Wood – Portfolio Director at DWP, who’ve designed several healthcare facilities such as Prime Hospital (Garhoud), Gold Coast Private Hospital and Bumrungrad International Hospital.  “Up to 40% of locals expressed a preference for treatment – a trend that the local government is adamant on changing. Expatriates, who make up 90% of the workforce, choose to travel to Europe or USA for medical treatment due to a general perception that the Middle East lacks the quality healthcare they demand, in spite of the region having a top notch healthcare infrastructure.”

An interesting effect of this can be seen in the subtle change in messaging by some healthcare providers in the UAE – in the past, the majority of them chose to educate the public on the quality of doctors and services available. However, we’re now seeing a change in focus; organizations are electing to highlight the quality of their facilities as well, in order to convey their holistic approach of caring to those seeking quality medical care that goes beyond a physician’s scope.

Richard also mentions that “one major local healthcare provider reported that the child of a patient visiting one of their hospitals asked why they were in ‘a factory’; providing a wakeup call to this hospital operator.” Examples like this are few of the many that underlying reasons for the dramatic changes in Healthcare design over the past fifteen years, as well a boost in funding. Facilities were previously designed mainly for functionality and gave little attention to aesthetics and the overall patient experience.

Healthcare Design starts from the Patient, not the facility

Bumrungrad International Hospital by DWP - Healthcare Design Trends
Bumrungrad International Hospital by DWP

Karim Khemakhem is the CEO and co-founder of Dubai-based design practice Massa Design – healthcare interior design specialists who’ve developed a wealth of insight and knowledge in regional healthcare. According to Karim, one trend that has been getting more traction in the healthcare design evolution is the integration of hospitality like environments into healthcare facilities, including its star rating. To accommodate this evolution, the designers at Massa now find themselves seamlessly integrating their hospitality experience into the world of healthcare design.

For example, the evolution of in-patient room design started around making the room feel more like home. This then evolved into borrowing heavily from the hospitality industry or, in the case of the Middle East, a five-star hotel! The early signs we’re now starting to see in the patient room is a focus on patient customization and personal preference.  The introduction of state of the art technology has made it easy for the patient to change the mood, color, and feel of the room.

Richard also focuses on how interior design influences need to be directed towards a more holistic healing approach, a ‘wellness spa’ like mood  to overcome any stressful or potentially confrontational environment for the patient and visitor, interacting with staff that serve long working shifts to meet the service needs of a modern day hospital or clinic. Sustainable and biophilic design elements will be a big contributor to this. Efficient workflow practices not only relate to the staff, patient or visitor interface but also the many faceted logistical backup requirements of housekeeping supplies, pharmaceuticals, food and materials to be efficiently delivered throughout the facilities, where interaction and security, distinct from the public circulation, must be maintained.

Local forces that challenge healthcare design

John Hunter Hospital Paediatric Intensive Care Unit by DWP - Healthcare Design Trends
John Hunter Hospital Paediatric Intensive Care Unit by DWP

Global A+D firm Perkins + Will is no stranger to domestic challenges that often influence the direction of their projects. Diane Thorsen – Principal Design Director at P+W’s Dubai studio emphasizes how ever-shrinking facility footprints challenge her team to design spaces that are efficient as well as user-friendly. “Unrealistic budgets and timelines often drive decisions rather than focusing on designing a great product from the inside out starting with the patient at its core. However, this does have a positive spin as it in turn forces innovations such as multipurpose furniture to help maximize space.” An example of this would include visitor sleeper sofas that incorporate solid-surface side tables with built-in data and electrical access, and with storage compartments for linens and pillows.

Maintaining the balance between form and function is another challenge, says Karim. “Often, healthcare facilities are driven by functionality and operate under strict guidelines. This means we have to be creative in coming up with interior designs that meet all regulatory guidelines and hygienic properties while creating an environment that relieves stress and anxiety for patients”. In other instances, designers plan around intimidating healthcare equipment, for which the aim is to find ways to redirect a patient’s focus away from these machines.

How is the Design Community keeping up?

Al Salam Hospital by Massa - Healthcare Design Trends
Al Salam Hospital by Massa

“At Perkins + Will, the focus is on understanding how human senses play a role in healing” says Diane. A keen observer and learner herself, she stressed on the importance of learning. Diane tell us how the firm conducts research into innovations related to tactile finishes for materials and furniture, how positive emotional responses to natural light aid healing, colour therapy and our response to colour in particular spaces, design advances linked with biophilia, introducing views to nature and the positive role that great design plays in providing spaces to support compassionate care of patients.

When we ask Richard for his thoughts on the matter, he proudly tells us how DWP incorporates the latest tools into their designs. “We utilise a vast array of constantly updated iCloud data, BIM based standardised room layouts and data in Revit, and dRofus as well as virtual reality tools where specialist hospital user groups can be placed inside a virtual model of a room, for example, an Operating Theatre, and design the layout of the required equipment without the need of physical mock-ups, thereby reducing the design phases and likely miscommunication in the interpretation of drawings.”

The trends and changes mentioned underscore a basic message the healthcare industry is sending out to the public – in the face of an ever increasing demand for premium quality medical care, healthcare providers in the Middle East are actively making efforts to take the extra step in accommodating these demands. Whether this push comes from local governments or private care providers, the goal is the same; the Middle East is to be the next hub for medical tourism.

Related Articles

Saving Water

Flooring for Good