Ken Dyer leads dwp|suters’ National Health team and is a senior specialist health planner architect who has more than 20 years of experience in planning and designing a diverse range of projects in the health sector.

Dyer recently spoke at the 3rd China International Medical Service Industry Development Summit 2014 for a presentation titled,  ‘Wellness by Design – Achieving User Satisfaction in Design for High End’.

Architecture & Design spoke to him about his presentation, the key to good health design and the trend of the consumerisation of heath information technology.

Can you tell A&D about the presentation you recently made in China?

In January 2014, I presented a lecture “Wellness by Design - Achieving User Satisfaction in the Design of Hospitals & Clinics” to the 3rd China International Medical Service Industry Development Summit in Shanghai.

As architects we always are striving to achieve user satisfaction in our health architecture, keeping in mind that users are not only patients – they include staff and the community as well. The nature of hospital design is one of constant change and evolution driven by advances in science, technology and patient care.

In the last half of the 20th century, medical facilities were often characterised by sterile, utilitarian and unsympathetic buildings. This was a result of the technological explosion and a focus on treating illness, rather than the whole person. These hospitals are typically vast monoliths with a maze of windowless corridors connecting patients, staff and visitors from one faceless department to another.

Stress and sensory overload are accepted elements of everyday life in modern society. These pressures are amplified by the uncertainty and fear that accompanies the onset of acute illness, creating severe anxiety for patients and their families. Insensitive hospital design only makes this worse.

We are now recognising that hospitals are one of our largest public and private infrastructure investments and they are instrumental as a hub in local and regional communities. With this renewed vision of a hospital’s role comes a shift in the design focus. The evolution of a holistic approach to treating patients (not just the acute illness) means the physical environment must be designed for the health and wellbeing of patients by humanising the hospital experience. 

Compared to other sectors of design, how hard is health design?

Health design is very challenging but extremely rewarding. Personally, I believe it is important to create more healthy, connected, socially activated and sustainable places. Our approach to the redevelopment of a hospital campus is to enhance social cohesion and increase economic benefit for the community. We look beyond current campus evolution – the placement of traditionally separated facilities within a single precinct – to the future of hospital development that embraces connectedness and incorporates greater flexibility, legibility, and soft edges.

Flexibility is important because flexible places and facilities are easily adapted to a variety of activities, age groups and interests. This ensures that they are used every day and have ongoing relevance. Legibility is essential to ensure the hospital campus is simple to navigate and safe to move through. Softening the edges or creating fuzzy boundaries between hospital campus and the wider community is important. It is often these spaces on the edges and in between buildings or precincts that attract the highest utilisation.

Also, I consider it vital to create a hospital campus that has a strong identity and recognises the hospital as a dynamic and integrated community place with certainty, confidence and a clear directive.

Is there a certain approach you like to take to designing mental health facilities?

Our extensive experience in designing for mental health units ensures that we can effectively resolve issues around safety of the physical environment through embedded design solutions like good observation and clear delineation of uses. We ensure the design provides for both patients and staff with a secure, contained yet non-threatening and welcoming environment. We focus on design that enhances recovery, with integration of psychiatric services combined with an ambience of independence and a non-institutional character.

Is there a particularly difficult project you've worked on?

Every health project has its difficulties, whether it’s a masterplanning challenge to ensure optimum circulation and connectivity at the inception of a project; whether it is juggling the difficult negotiations between the end users with budget and space constraints; or whether it’s achieving efficient and buildable redevelopment solutions within existing working hospital environments. We work collaboratively and creatively with all stakeholders to ensure the right outcome.

What is one project you wish you had designed?

The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. The very nature of designing a facility for children (and their families) at their most vulnerable would be an incredible honour. Designing this type of health facility gives the opportunity to instil many current, world-class ‘wellness’ ideals. Through vision, a family-centred care model, involvement and engagement, the design was liberated from the stereotypical hospital.

You have over 20 years of experience in the industry. What do you think has had the biggest impact on the industry?

Information technology (IT). Now typically, the physician has a care team with global access to information supporting the care delivery. Patients and families are active participants in the care process. The focus can now extend beyond the hospital assessment and treatment to include health education as a preventative and supportive element to the care model.

One of the big trends is the consumerisation of heath information technology. As a consequence the patient has devices like tablets and smartphones that provide information on how to take better care of their own health. Knowledge is power, not only for the patient but the family and the social environment around the patient, contributing to a family approach to healing.

In an age when western countries like Australia are facing unprecedented rates of non-communicable disease, management, early intervention and prevention are just as important as acute care hospitals. A health facility therefore needs to be designed as a place that does more than simply promote wellbeing.

If you weren't an architect, what would you like to be doing?

I would possibly be a healthcare professional. I have untaken first aid courses and I am a qualified sports trainer. I would enjoy the interaction with people, problem solving (albeit on the human anatomy) and the ability to make a social difference, not unlike an architect!