Caroline Leemis: Bringing better health by design

Photo courtesy Caroline Leemis Design

Caroline Leemis, a 27-year-old Columbia, Mo. transplant from Arkansas, still keeps the print of her graduation project, a holistic design plan for a new neurology and cancer clinic, in her home studio. Near it are hundreds of fabric, palette, tile and finish samples in transparent plastic cases in order, with sustainable materials kept in carton cases. Leemis has been running her own design company, Caroline Leemis Design LLC in Columbia, Mo., for a year and a half. Although self-admittedly timid, she has big ambitions to build her own healthcare design career, hoping to have contractors and clients to realize her design for clinics of this kind in the near future. 

Healthcare designers such as Leemis are a new career group in the past quarter century. They rearrange both healthcare environments and office buildings to nudge the people in them toward better health. Healthcare designers light up wards with larger windows facing pleasant scenery; they place an outdoor garden in the hospital to help reduce patients’ stress during the healing process; they perfect space planning—sometimes drawing bright color curves on the ground connecting the reception, the nurse unit and the patients’ bed—to guide the nurses to improve their working efficiency.

The whole healthcare industry is experiencing a lean movement at the moment, which means using a series of managerial principles to improve quality and efficiency while controlling cost. This provides a golden chance for healthcare interior designers. According to Healthcare Design Magazine’s national survey, the number of healthcare design contracts signed in the U.S. in 2012 by professional design firms totaled 10,339, an increase of 16 percent from the previous year. Companies in the field such as HDR Architecture, HKS, Cannon Design, Perkins+Will see the number of projects underway almost doubled that in 2010.

“I still remember when my grandmother passed away she told me that I would make a very good nurse,” Leemis said. She grew up with a special interest in medicine but couldn’t deal with needles or blood. “This is my way of having an impact on the healthcare field without having to do the clinical side of thing,” she said.

The relative newness and outside-the-box nature of the business means there are still limitations, though. She sighed describing an experience when cost limits made one client give up using a recycled tile material, a milky white ceramic inlaid with scattered amber beer-bottle shred. “It is sustainable and very beautiful, but five times the cost,” Leemis said.

Healthcare designers use a similar model to that of evidence-based medicine, bringing together scientific evidence and personal expertise to accomplish a goal. Standing at the intersection between artistry and science, Leemis needs to refer to the latest empirical research findings conducted in big hospitals nationwide by institutions such as the Center for Health Design. States also keep updating their health-related construction and architecture codes to cope with the ever-increasing demand for health, safety and welfare. “Healthcare designers are even encouraged to conduct our own empirical research,” Leemis said.

Leemis was drawn into the field when she worked as an intern in her sophomore and junior years on projects for Arkansas Children’s Hospital and Delta Dental Office. In her class at the University of Arkansas in 2009, only two out of 40 interior design majors chose healthcare as their emphasis area. In mid-Missouri, Leemis is the only certified Evidence-Based Designer by the Center for Health Design at the moment. She says she saw the Columbia area as a market gap, but she also had confidence in the future of the industry, as places such as St. Louis and Kansas City provide huge potential markets.

Although Leemis is the only designer in her business at the moment—the other employee, her husband Eric, works as business manager—she has made good use of what Columbia provides for startups. She is active in networking events from the Chamber of Commerce and Woman’s Network and is able to put more resources into statewide, and even cross-state, marketing to pitch to more clients. Leemis plans to start with alternative medicine providers such as chiropractors and osteopathy.

“Changes should be made in the healthcare industry,” Leemis said. “Our society focuses on drugs and temporary solutions to health-related problems, but not going to the cause.”

Leemis said she wants to help people realize the significance of preventive measures and the human body’s general wellness, and that there are many factors to look into,  both physical and psychological. “For example, providing patients with the control of lighting and temperature will help defense the dignity of cancer patients,” she said.

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