There’s very little that’s sexy about the health care industry. Within the tangled threads connecting government regulation, opaque insurance policies, and the actual work of patient care itself, there’s not a lot of room for glitz or style, and certainly very little time for those working within the health care machine to step back, take inventory of the larger system, and reflect on what’s working, what’s not, and what could be better if only someone would stop and think through certain problems. This aspect of health care ensures that virtually nobody in the industry has the time or the inclination to dwell on the role of design.
According to a small group of architects and designers, this lack of design-thinking is precisely why the health care industry struggles to deliver on so many levels. Design, after all, isn’t just about form. It’s about function. “We think that design has the power to revolutionize industries, just as it has in electronics, in cars, in everything else,” Salley Whitman says. “But in health care we haven’t tapped into that in a systematic way.”
Whitman is the Executive Director of NXT Health, a non-profit health care design organization that she describes as something like the research and development shop that the health care industry has always lacked. NXT Health got its start back in 2006 via a Department of Defense grant asking the organization to lead a design collaboration in producing the hospital room of the future — not a futuristic operating theater or a suite of new treatment technologies, but a patient room that could improve health care outcomes at the individual level. The room itself and the design principles underpinning it have undergone some changes and alterations in the interim, but fundamentally the objective has remained the same: to create better patient care strictly through better design — no game-changing technological breakthroughs or federal legislation required.