What Does Trauma-Informed Design Mean for Healthcare Facilities?

This design practice can help ease traumatized patients in their surroundings with healthcare facilities.

By Jeff Wardon, Jr., Assistant Editor

Trauma is an unfortunate aspect of the human experience that comes in many different forms. While this feeling does pass, it can often leave scars for quite some time afterward. These wounds can be reopened by certain triggers, causing an individual to relive or remember their traumatic experience in some type of way. For some, healthcare facilities can be a potential trigger. 

Some people may have had negative experiences with doctors, appointments, procedures, etc. These experiences can become mentally associated with the healthcare facilities themselves. Thus, leading to the person’s traumatic experiences resurfacing through the facility itself being a trigger. 

“Clinical environments can be triggering for some people who have either had poor experiences in the past or it is setting an aspect of their brains off leading them to this fight or flight response,” says Hao Duong, principal at Ankrom Moisan. “All that affects your ability to retain or recall memory. It also affects your ability to engage with clinicians. By being in that state of mind, you have already set a person off to not have that good sort of evaluation criteria. That is set off by their physiologic state as well as setting them off to not trust and not be able to communicate with the practitioner. So, you have already created a sense of non-safety which leads to a poor experience.” 

There are ways to minimize the potential of triggering someone within a healthcare facility, though. Using trauma-informed design intentionally puts patients at ease, allowing them to be more respondent and less put off by their environment.  

An example of trauma-informed design would be taking into consideration sensory issues. This can come in the form of reduced brightness for those who are sensitive to bright lights. Another example would be using products that do not have harsh chemicals or strong scents. These are things that can be done to prevent triggering people who have sensory issues. 

One size doesn’t fit all 

Duong says that to create a safe environment for patients, designers must recognize the environmental triggers and address them so that patients can be treated in their entirety. Duong also adds that a “one size fits all” approach will not work since the clinical environments and their triggers will vary from rural to suburban to urban settings.  

There are a few principles that come along with trauma-informed design. According to Duong, they are: 

Predictability: This allows a person to enter a clinical environment with an idea of what will happen next. For example, wayfinding helps patients navigate a facility, giving them a sense of knowing where they are in their healthcare journey. 

Inclusivity and Relatability: These principles work to make spaces more welcoming and relatable, however, this all depends on the person and the community they come from.  Designing with inclusivity and relatability in mind creates a sense of belonging and familiarity to patients who could be away from their home for long periods of time.  

Safety: While safety is paramount, the forms it can manifest in can be triggers in and of themselves. Some ways to mitigate this is to have security staff dressed in plain clothes or even renaming them entirely.  

Choice: This is about giving people the ability to act of their own will. A benefit of this is creating a sense of empowerment for people so they feel they have a say in their healthcare journey. This principle can be followed by giving people choices of where to sit, what exam rooms to use and what types of configurations they are comfortable with. 

Trust: For someone to receive the best care, the trust between patient and provider is crucial. Patients will feel more comfortable with providers they have a working and trustworthy relationship with. It also helps the patient to keep coming back and receiving quality care.  

Additionally, trauma-informed design principles such as these can play a role in patient outcomes. 

“Outcomes are huge, especially when it comes to marginalized communities, treatment does not just happen once and it is done,” says Duong. “There is this need to come back for treatment, whether it is for a genetic disorder or if it is for something mental health related. You need to come back to have a positive outcome, and there are lots of barriers to coming back.” 

Trauma-informed design is a way to create comfort for traumatized individuals with their healthcare environments. Trauma can be very difficult to live with, and healthcare facilities need not be a source of it. Instead, they can be spaces for individuals coping with trauma to heal and make progress.  

Jeff Wardon, Jr. is the assistant editor for the facilities market. 

July 6, 2023

Topic Area: Interior Design

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