Creating a healing environment

Smart design and the human connection are potent prescriptions for cancer care facilities


Since July 2014, patient and family advisors have been engaged in conversations about how to create a healing environment in cancer care. These talks have been inspirational, and the good news is that according to our patients and families there is room for improvement when it comes to the current cancer care experience.

Our parents taught us that first impressions matter, and this holds true when it comes to creating a healing experience. Ultimately, when it comes to cancer care, we want our first impression to be: “You will be cared for here and you’re in good hands.” Since we know that’s what our patients and families need to hear most, how can we clearly communicate it? The answer requires a perfect synergy between smart space design and the human connection.

Last fall during a meeting led by exhibit developer and artist Kris Kelly-Frére, the advisors shared their thoughts on healing environments by using sticky notes in a four-part matrix using the words: “I like…”, “I wish…”, “What if?” and “Aha!” Not surprisingly, their comments highlighted the importance of making positive first impressions at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.

As advisors considered what they liked and wished for, one suggested that the lobby of the Alberta Children’s Hospital provides an example of positive experience, noting: “Adults need colour, too!” Following the lead of the suggestion, the advisors recommended the ideal space have a comfortable entrance featuring plants, natural light, calming works of art, use of natural materials such as wood, a feeling of spaciousness, big comfy chairs, places of respite, a view of the surrounding natural environment and spots to sit and have coffee. Beyond removing the clutter and chaos of a beyond-capacity cancer centre, the advisors expressed a longing for a welcoming and inviting environment to meet patients during one of the most stressful and scary moments of their lives.

A beautiful environment would only partially impact patient experience – it also needs a human connection to support it. Among the most powerful recommendations was to “Help us with finding our humanity.” I spent some time with this comment, and it hit me personally and pretty hard. Not only does it provide insight into how lost and fearful cancer patients can feel, but it is also an invitation to help reconnect patients with their physical, mental, spiritual and emotional selves. All of that is lost (for a time) when facing cancer. With their suggestions, the advisors reminded us that the first faces patients often see at a cancer centre are strangers who will tell them that they have cancer. These first faces are tasked with not only being knowledgeable and friendly, but also with a responsibility to begin the patient’s healing process.

As you’ve guessed, I’m not a fan of waiting around for resources to create a perfect healing environment. I believe that staff empowerment and personal accountability are two keys toward creating an overall healing experience.

When I walk through the cancer centre’s entrance and hallways to get to a meeting, I often stop to help if I see someone who looks lost or confused. Truth be told, there is always someone fitting this description. Now the words, “Help me with finding my humanity,” regularly play in my head as I ask them if I can be of help.

With the current absence of comfy chairs and a café, the responsibility belongs to every person who works in cancer care to create a more healing environment. No matter what his or her role or title is, everyone is a caregiver. This mindset is the beginning of a deeply healing environment.

Jessica Dollard is the patient-centred experience advisor on the Calgary Cancer Project. As a consultant in engagement and patient experience, as well as an actor, film and theatre producer, programmer, medical skills trainer and executive certified coach, she brings a creative background to this work.

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