Using Healthcare Design To Address Social Determinants Of Health

Using Healthcare Design To Address Social Determinants Of Health

Photo credit: Baker Barrios Architects

Long before an individual seeks healthcare—whether for illness or preventative treatment—certain social determinants have likely already swayed their long-term health outlook.

Social determinates of health (SDOH) are factors in the environment where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health and quality-of-life outcomes. Examples of SDOH with positive effects include access to safe housing, nutritious foods, and physical activity opportunities.

Negative factors include a range of harmful conditions such as heart disease and cancer caused by everything from pollution to crime. The ability to obtain an education, secure employment, and utilize transportation are other examples that, when absent, can contribute to negative health disparities.

This concept of social determinates of health is widely recognized and is even a key focus of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) “Healthy People 2030” initiative, which sets data-driven national objectives to improve health and well-being.

So, how can the healthcare design sector combat negative SDOHs?

SDOH and the built environment

Architects have long studied how the built environment can promote occupant health and well-being, with most efforts concentrated on residential and commercial office buildings where people spend the majority of their time. It’s not only the design of these buildings that matters, but also their location—for example, newly constructed housing will not have the same quality-of-life benefits if it is in a high-crime, low-amenity neighborhood.

The same principle applies to healthcare real estate. A state-of-the-art facility will do little to improve the health of a community if those most in need are unable to access its services—whether that means transportation challenges, language barriers, or other similar obstacles. For this reason, HHS’ Healthy People 2030 program includes increasing the ability of providers to deliver “high-quality, timely, and accessible patient-centered care” as an objective tied to the broader healthcare-focused SDOH, which includes healthcare access and quality and the built environment.

Assuming society has removed basic barriers to health by providing quality housing in safe, accessible, mixed-use neighborhoods, what continues to prevent people from seeking care or following through on prescribed steps from their healthcare provider?

Sometimes the answer lies in the physical space itself.

According to a recent PatientPoint study, two in five Americans surveyed said they feel anxious about visiting healthcare settings. For many, a piece of that anxiety is related to the sterile, institutional designs that are often not focused on the patient experience.

Design strategies to support care access

It’s this aspect of healthcare—the physical environment—where designers can have a positive impact on the health and well-being of the general population. Working together with healthcare owners, operators, and executives, the industry can lead the way in reimagining the built environment of healthcare systems.

Some strategies to deliver inviting healthcare environments where patients feel comfortable seeking care include:

  • Reduce institutional influences. Simply put, make the healthcare setting feel more like “home.” While the materials used must support a clean and sterile environment, warmth can be added through colorful paint, lighting, furniture, and artwork that help patients feel more at ease in their surroundings. Exposure to natural light and fresh air, whether achieved through use of windows or a direct connection to the outdoors, can also promote patient comfort.
  • Improve wayfinding. Patients are uneasy when it’s unclear where they need to go in a building. Having a layout that feels intuitive to navigate, with adequate signage and staffing stations that can help direct visitors to their destination, will result in a more positive experience. In addition to their aesthetic benefits, colored walls and art pieces can also serve as memory cues that help patients retrace their steps during a visit.
  • Address equity and inclusion. Consider that much like healthcare itself, designing a space that is both comfortable and functional is not a one-size-fits-all model. Accommodate the needs of a patient population by offering signage and information in multiple languages, for example. Additionally, ensure facilities are available for everyone, including all gender identities and family structures. One approach is to include non-gendered or gender-inclusive restrooms and family restrooms. If including art depicting people, select pieces that represent a broad population. For neurodivergent individuals, care spaces, such as separate waiting rooms or quiet rooms, with less stimuli or different sensory options can allow a person to decompress or re-center.

Using design to improve health outcomes

Numerous studies, including one from the National Library of Medicine, have shown the costly impact to healthcare’s bottom line that comes from patient readmissions, hospital-acquired infections, and delayed diagnoses.

Having a population that seeks timely, trustworthy care and feels like a participant in their treatment plan has been demonstrated to be the most cost-effective way of improving health.

Together, architects and healthcare providers can help bridge gaps in U.S. healthcare delivery and ensure facilities are designed to maximize positive outcomes for patients both today and in the future.


Ray Wong is associate principal, Baker Barrios Architects in Tampa, Fla. and can be reached at



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