February 7, 2017

Abstract: The Case for Empathy-Informed Design

For Immediate Release

Ian Sinclair, Principal and VP of Healthcare in our Toronto office will be presenting his abstract entitled “The Case for Empathy-Informed Design” at the World Congress on Design and Health in Vienna in July. This is the fifth time Ian has had a paper selected for presentation at the congress. He will be presenting alongside a small group of participants that were selected through an anonymous evaluation process.
The Case for Empathy-Informed Design:
Analysis: A Cancer Centre is not just another health care building. It is a place for those with a very unique disease—unlike any other illness. Perceived often as a death sentence, cancer has no bias to age, ethnicity or gender and levies a catastrophic impact upon the normal life of patients and families. Unlike other diseases, no single care provider “owns” it. Treatments often feel worse than the disease itself. For cancer patients, the treatment journey is an emotional roller coaster of progress and setback that evokes a loss of control, uncertainty and fear. Unlike other illnesses, the emotional connections made between cancer caregivers, patients and their families can become unusually strong.

Hypothesis: If one agrees that cancer patients are different than almost any other patient and that the relationship between caregiver, patient and family is unusually close, then the criteria typically used to inform cancer centre design, must be different. This paper argues that the most important and appropriate design criteria for a cancer centre, above and beyond form and function, is human empathy.

Research: Various studies have demonstrated that patients and families are overwhelmed by emotions of devastation characterized by pain, loneliness, worry, anxiety, helplessness, anger, dread, despair, darkness and unfairness. It is an evil and insidious disease. What, therefore, are the design responses that will serve as a counterpoint to these powerful emotions? What are the design reflections for fairness, openness, clarity, honesty, safety, security, blamelessness, hope and joy? As designers, therefore, are we not compelled to place ourselves in the shoes of patients, families and caregivers, to feel these emotions, to truly be empathetic, in order to be able to design a facility that truly responds to these powerful human emotions?

How can design best offer a counterpoint to fear, anxiety, loss of control and loss of dignity? How can design offer simplicity and clarity in the face of care system characterized by an unfamiliar medical language within a system whose navigation is an anxiety provoking experience? How can design respond to the patient’s insatiable thirst for information on their disease and treatment options? How can design counteract the extreme interface with imposing technology faced by most patients? How can design
“heal the healers”?

Conclusion: In order to respond to the needs of these three groups, (patients, families and caregivers) this paper argues, that empathy and compassion must be the drivers to inform design… above all else. Efficient, flexible, and operationally sustainable design should simply be a given. If we get that right, we will succeed in affecting patient outcomes.

Ian Sinclair, MHA, CHE, Principal, Vice President, Kasian Architecture