Case Study: Lee Brennan on Healthcare Innovation

The linear accelerator at The Doug + Nancy Barnhart Cancer Center at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center overlooks a garden, one of many innovative, patient-focused design decisions Lee Brennan and Cuningham Group incorporated into the facility’s design. Image courtesy Cuningham Group. It seems like the simplest of ideas—improve the hospital experience for patients (and by extension their caregivers and loved ones) and create a constellation of favorable circumstances that can promote healing and reduce the stress and anxiety levels of all comers. As a brief look at modern medicine reveals, the reality has been very different. In his work at Cuningham Group’s healthcare studio, principal Lee Brennan has been thinking long and hard about just how to improve those experiences and, by extension, potentially improve outcomes.

A case in point is Brennan and the San Diego team’s recent work on The Doug + Nancy Barnhart Cancer Center at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center in San Diego, where, Brennan says, “every measure was taken to improve the patient experience from the moment of arrival.” To do this, Wayne Hunter and Phillip Soule, of Cuningham Group, led groups of facility leadership and healthcare professionals in intensive, collaborative work sessions to provide feedback on what they liked—and disliked—about the existing facility. On other projects Brennan noted they have used a patient advisory group. These methods allow them to incorporate that feedback. The result is state-of-the-art facilities that keeps the human factor in sight.

At the center, gardens and fountains appear throughout, even in the linear accelerator vault, “where the patient faces a floor-to-ceiling wall of windows that provide daylight and open directly on to a view of an outside garden,” notes Brennan. “The machine itself was turned 180 degrees from its typical orientation to hide the gantry, enabling it to serve rather than intimidate the patient.” Entrances too are designed to be residential-scale and unintimidating; returning patients also have their own more, private entrance. Other innovations include an entire floor outfitted with an air purification system allowing patients facing long hospital stays a chance at a more normal existence. 

Though Brennan’s focus is squarely on the patient, he says, “Too often medical designers get caught up pleasing the patient, who is essentially the customer. But staff is there every day. So we create what we call ‘offstage’ spaces where they can get access to natural light: We cut courtyards into the lockers and lounge areas and even bring daylighting into the surgical corridors when possible.”

Improving the experiences of patients and staff may just be the tip of the iceberg when comes to rethinking the healthcare experience more generally—something Brennan and Cuningham Group, recently joined by NTD Healthcare in a strategic expansion, are primed to do. For Brennan, the creation of wellness districts could improve the quality of life for the community as a whole. As he sees it, rather than creating multi-hospital districts in urban areas (think Boston, for example), Brennan sees the promise of areas that broadly promote health and well being for patients, potential patients and staff alike. It would mean developing close-by, affordable housing for staff, enticing grocery stores and restaurants into the area, building athletic facilities and other facilities that get people moving. “The hospital can be instigator of change,” says Brennan. “It’s an idea that can be taken anywhere, even rural areas with a bit of a modification—you don’t need five giant hospitals, just an anchor tenant in a larger conversation.” 

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