Medical Design + Construction | Taking a Fresh Look at Family-Centered Care

Taking a Fresh Look at Family-Centered Care

Matthew Leonard and Jennifer Kenson, September 2011 Download PDF

Until quite recently, a patient could walk into a hospital and know immediately if it was a place for children or a place for adults. Different age groups, administrators thought, required different environments. Most pediatric wards looked and felt like interior playgrounds. Adult settings were the complete opposite – austerely designed spaces fitted out with muted colors and televisions.

As hospitals shift towards family-centered care, their approach to patient environments is shifting as well. They want to maximize space by building environments that appeal to a variety of patients. Take pediatric departments, which treat infants as well as 18-year-olds. Some childhood disease specialists even monitor former pediatric patients well into their 30s. These older patients and parents who accompany their children need adult amenities. They don’t want to sit on stools.

To meet these needs, designers are finding new ways to help their healthcare clients to get the most use out of individual departments as well as their public spaces. In addition, nurses and other hospital staff want to have comfortable working environments that are free from visual clutter and other distractions. Finally, interior spaces that are comfortable to a broad range of age groups are more flexible; their functions can easily change as needed.

Trying to strike a balance between the needs of younger and older patients, while still creating a calm atmosphere, poses an interesting challenge to designers. To create hospital settings that resonate with both children and adults, they are using a variety of different techniques, particularly light and colors, to create soothing spaces.

One example is the PICU at Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park, NY, which does double duty: initially designed for children, the hospital intends to convert the PICU into a bone marrow transplant department at a future date. Because the PICU is geared to younger patients, the designers interspersed blue and yellow circles against a wood-toned wall and bright floor patterns that are visually interesting to children. Adults will also find the colors to be cheerful because the environment is not overly themed. The colors highlight different areas of the department and help with wayfinding without looking too playful. 

Designers have found that natural daylight has healing qualities that affect children and adults and increase their rate of recovery. The PICU’s patient rooms have large windows that let parents and children see what is going on outside, provide a positive distraction, and make them feel less anxious. Both children and adults also respond well to having some form of control over their environment; the designers made sure that patients can move the window shades to let in as much or as little daylight as they want.

The lobby at the St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Paterson, NJ, also serves as the pediatric hospital lobby. Here, art is combined with natural daylight to produce a positive ambiance for children, as well as all other patients and visitors to the hospital. The centerpiece of the lobby is a custom-designed globe that represents the global nature of medicine. Made up of small blue and green cubes, it is suspended from a skylight and reflects sunlight as it moves across the room during the day.

Other kinds of artwork, such as murals or changing digital photography displays, appeal to diverse age groups. In addition to the globe, designers also created visual interest at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center by installing a state-of-the-art light wall. The wall is composed of square acrylic LED-lit panels that slowly change colors. The changing light sculpture provides a focal point for the interior space and helps to divert patients and their families from their stress.
The integration of children’s and adult environments will only become more common in the future. As hospitals seek to have more flexibility in their spaces, they will integrate patient- and family-oriented spaces that are cheerful and soothing to visitors of all types and ages.


Jennifer K. Kenson, IIDA, EDAC, has been creating successful healthcare environments for 14 years as a senior interior designer at Francis Cauffman. Her efforts have been recognized through awards, such as the User Centered Design Award from the Philadelphia Chapter of the AIA and the Healthcare Environments Award from the Center of Health Design and Contract.

Matthew A. Leonard, brings four years of experience to Francis Cauffman as a project architect. He directs teams from design through to construction for notable healthcare systems. Currently, he is completing a 175,000-square foot Critical Care Building for St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson, New Jersey.

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