Championing Community Support, Privacy in Cancer Care Facilities

September 22, 2019

Oncological facilities that promote flexibility are the ones best suited to care for the needs of their patient population.

Cancer-the disease is synonymous with fear, denial, stress, and hope.

Regarded as one of the most challenging diseases with which to come to grips, cancer is emotionally and physically exhausting for both patients and their families––from radiation therapy to intravenous infusions and everything in between. The day-to-day struggle of living with cancer can be overwhelming.

According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer doesn’t discriminate. More than 15.5 million Americans (nearly 40%) are diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime.

When actively receiving treatment, oncology patients seek support and peace-of-mind from family, caregivers, and fellow patients. Each patient is an individual with his/her own emotional and physical needs, which makes designing oncology facilities demanding.

For this reason, it’s necessary for oncology facilities to be thoughtfully designed to take both community and privacy into consideration.

Communal spaces for improved support systems

An individual’s life is changed the moment he or she is diagnosed.

It might not sink in at first, but the recently-diagnosed are about to embark upon a potentially harrowing journey. This path will prompt loved ones––friends and family alike-to attempt to provide support. But can people genuinely offer support if they haven’t gone through a similar experience themselves?

Community has long been considered an ideal source of support for oncology patients. It enables individuals to come together in ways that only they can––to swap stories, provide tips and insight, lend words of encouragement, be empathetic with one another, and more.

Related: Innovative Staff Areas-A Critical Component for More Impactful Cancer Care

But community doesn’t need to be relegated to support groups. Instead, community can be found in the oncology facilities themselves.

It’s up to designers to find creative ways to design spaces that encourage socialization and communal interaction, such as kitchens, lobbies, gardens, and other spaces that can be shared by fellow patients (and family members) to facilitate a sense of camaraderie, which inherently lends itself to support.

For example, the Angie Fowler Adolescent & Young Adult Cancer Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, was designed to include a 60-foot-long “welcome wall” that greets patients, families, and guests. It guides them from the lobby to one of two treatment wings and a decentralized-care team station adjacent to treatment and examination rooms.

The welcome wall guides patients past a variety of potential stops, including several inviting waiting areas. Since young adult cancer patients have different emotional and social needs, which can often be overlooked, the Angie Fowler design gives them their own space that includes a variety of entertainment options to take a break alone or with peers.

The wall makes the patients at Angie Fowler feel comfortable from the moment they enter. It also helps ensure a sense of community from the get-go to let patients know that they’re not alone in their journey.

Respites for peace-of-mind

While some oncology patients find mutual support beneficial, many can find it overwhelming and would prefer to be alone finding comfort in privacy. Plus, even the most outgoing of individuals requires the occasional respite to decompress following a challenging treatment.

For both of these reasons, designers must create spaces that facilitate privacy, even if it’s only temporary. Areas such as private acoustic rooms and gardens with a myriad of nooks and crannies encourage patients to seek personal time. These are two examples of ways that designers can develop spaces to promote privacy.

Designers should also work hand-in-glove with hospital staff to better understand patient flows to ensure that patient rooms have varying degrees of adjacency with caregiver areas. In certain instances, it can be problematic for a patient to continually hear commotion outside of his/her room.

This approach also helps patients better connect with their families in a more intimate setting as opposed to being in full view of other patients

Flexible spaces for individual needs

Patients aren’t one-size-fits-all, so facilities shouldn’t be either.

Designers need to work closely with all parties––hospital staff, patients, families, etc.––to ensure that a variety of spaces are created to suit patients’ needs.

A critical component of this is the manipulation of space, which enables communal engagement as well as patient privacy.

For example, at the Angie Fowler facility, a rooftop garden called Angie’s Garden, was designed to facilitate both community and privacy. The garden is capable of hosting birthday parties and other events through a variety of small sections that are uniquely situated to be separate from the remainder of the space. It caters to individuals with a variety of needs who seek benefit from the natural surroundings.

If a rooftop garden that caters to the needs of all oncology patients isn’t a possibility, designers can craft spaces that allow patients access to natural light. Additionally, the design of communal spaces can be “visually flexible,” as well. For example, a small room with glass walls provides acoustic privacy while simultaneously facilitating a feeling of community, as other individuals can see into the space and engage with those using it.

Oncological facilities that promote flexibility are the ones best suited to care for the needs of their patient population. They support both the diversity of character and individual emotional needs.

Burn Sears, is senior project director, EYP.