Unless, that is, your establishment is a doctor’s office, medical clinic, or hospital. Mounting clinical evidence suggests that better design can improve patients’ health—not to mention their morale. But the one-sixth of the American economy devoted to health care hasn’t kept up with the rest of the economy’s aesthetic imperative, leaving patients to wonder, as a diabetes blogger puts it, “why hospital clinic interiors have to feel so much like a Motel 6 from the ’70s.”
A Hyatt from the early ’80s might be more accurate. The United States is in the midst of a hospital-building boom, with some $200 billion expected to be spent on new facilities between 2004 and 2014. Although more spacious and sunlit than the 50-year-old boxes they often replace, even new medical centers tend to concentrate their amenities in public areas, the way hotels used to feature lavish atriums but furnish guest rooms with dirt-hiding floral bedspreads and fake-wood desks. Hospital lobbies may now have gardens, waterfalls, and piano music, but that doesn’t mean their patient rooms, emergency departments, or imaging suites are also well designed. “Except for the computers you see, it’s like a 1980s hospital,” says Jain Malkin, a San Diego–based interior designer and the author of several reference books on health-care design. “The place where patients spend their time 24/7 is treated as if it’s back-of-the-house.”
Consider diagnostic imaging departments. MRIs and CT scans can frighten many patients, and research shows that simple elements such as nature photos can ease their stress. Yet the typical scanner room still looks “as if it’s a workshop for cars,” says Malkin, with bare walls and big machines. One of the bleakest rooms at the UCLA Medical Plaza, where I spend my time, is a waiting room in the imaging center. Small and beige, it epitomizes aesthetic neglect, with stained chairs, mismatched tiles, and tattered copies of U.S. News & World Report. The only wall art is a drug-company poster on myocardial perfusion imaging—just the thing to comfort anxious patients.
Cost is of course an issue. Malkin estimates that enhanced design amenities can add about 3 percent to the cost of a large project. The big shortage, though, is not money but attention. When hospital boards and executives talk with architects and designers, it’s rarely about the imaging department.
Also, unlike a hotel, a medical center rarely trains its staff to pay attention to how the place looks to guests. Hence the often-torn drug posters, teddy bears, and countertop clutter. If you work somewhere every day, after a while you don’t notice eight-year-old snapshots and peacock feathers too tall for the space. The ad hoc, staff-oriented decorating that fills an aesthetic vacuum can be worse than bare walls. Lee Mequet, a Southern California real-estate agent, recalls a chemotherapy visit with her husband, who was so ravaged by lung cancer that his skull and bones showed under his skin. The treatment room, she says, was “decorated for Halloween, with pumpkins and paper skeletons, and the tragicomic horribleness of the images made me want to rip the fucking things from the wall.” Alas, cable TV has yet to create a makeover show called Designed to Heal.