Going to the doctor can be taxing, even if it’s just for a checkup. When patients dread visiting the doctor, they at worst avoid it altogether, but at best increase their stress levels, which negatively impacts overall health. Waiting rooms can be uncomfortable, and patient rooms even worse. Unfortunately, as we get older, visits to healthcare facilities increase in frequency, and some people have long-term health issues that require regular visits. 

The design of a healthcare facility communicates that facility’s priorities: do they care about patient comfort, staff productivity, and providing supportive spaces for all users? Or do they provide the bare minimum with regards to patient comfort? The days of cold, sterile healthcare facilities are gone, as we have realized that well-designed (patient-centered) spaces can produce better outcomes overall, positively impact a person’s mood, mental health, and even their physical health.  

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Image of O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, courtesy of High5 Productions

A patient-centered space supports all users of the space, incorporates appropriate levels of privacy and agency, utilizes suitable materials, is as comfortable as possible, and is easy to navigate. 

All the Users

Designing a patient-oriented spaces doesn’t mean that the space revolves around only the patient—after all, the patient isn’t the only person occupying the space. A caregiver or loved one might accompany the patient, and the medical professionals need to be able to navigate and use the space during treatment. 

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Image of Ortho NC, courtesy of High5 Productions

Ample space should be provided for medical staff to circulate around the patient and the equipment spaces. Providing a comfortable space for a caregiver or loved one—out of the way of the medical personnel—can also support the patient’s wellbeing while undergoing treatment. 

Privacy & Agency

Patient privacy is a serious concern when designing healthcare spaces. Federal law protects sharing of patient information, and often times patients and their providers discuss sensitive medical information that the patient isn’t comfortable sharing with others. 

In facilities where discussions regarding treatment plans is done often, provide a dedicated space like a consultation room for doctors to meet with patients and their loved ones—outside of the treatment room, which can be stress-inducing and uncomfortable. A consultation room is an effective way to safeguard patient information and can enable the patient to retain some dignity and agency over their course of treatment.  Design the space to have 3-4 of same chairs—rather than a “patient” chair, a “doctor” chair, and a “guest” chair—reducing the implied hierarchy a patient room establishes. 

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Image of UAB Dewberry, courtesy of High5 Productions

But sometimes privacy isn’t desired in a healthcare space. When a patient must receive numerous treatments, being isolated in a room alone can lose its appeal. Spaces like infusion centers can be intentionally designed to create a sense of community between staff, patients, and caregivers. Providing opportunity for quick, informal interaction or prolonged conversations can make the treatment time pass more quickly, uplift moods, and ensure sightlines for staff to check in on patients without interrupting their activities. Installing discreet privacy curtains can both soften the space and provide visual privacy for the patient when needed. 

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Image of O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, courtesy of High5 Productions


Specifying appropriate materials in healthcare spaces is imperative—if the wrong material is used it can fail more quickly or even allow for transmission of germs from one patient to another. Materials on the wall, floor, and furniture should be cleanable and durable, but they should also be calming and attractive. Using gentle colors, natural looking materials, and providing some visual variety is important when cultivating supportive patient spaces. 

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Image of UAB Hoover, courtesy of High5 Productions

Even the most utilitarian medical spaces can easily incorporate cool colors and wood tones to make the patient experience less stressful. For more information on material selection in healthcare setting, click here.


Navigating any type of healthcare facility, be it a stand-alone doctor’s office or a muti-building hospital—can be overwhelming, especially when you’re probably arriving already under some stress. Knowing where to go—and then knowing how to get back or how to find assistance is an important consideration and shouldn’t be left until the end of the project. A skilled designer can use finish selection to indicate zones (staff zone, patient zone, hallway zone, etc.) and an accent wall or art can direct attention to commonly accessed spaces, like a nursing station. 

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Image of O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, courtesy of High5 Productions

Placing a patient room in line-of-sight to a satellite nurses station can help the patient feel less isolated and lost, and it allows nursing staff to noninvasively monitor the patients. 

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Image of O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, courtesy of High5 Productions

Medical care is more than treating a single problem—it should be about respecting the patient as a whole person, who desires comfort and supportive care. Designing patient-centered spaces is integral to staying on the cutting edge of patient care, and can help medical personnel provide care more effectively. For more information on design solutions for healthcare spaces or to be connected to Interior Elements, click here.

About the Author

Designing Supportive Patient-Centered Spaces

Anna Ruth Gatlin, PhD, is an award-winning interior designer and design researcher. Currently an Assistant Professor of Interior Design at Auburn University, she transitioned to full-time academia after a career practicing institutional, commercial, healthcare, and educational design.