Retail health spans a continuum ranging from drugstores to outpatient care centers and is based upon one simple question: Where do consumers want to access their health care?

The premise is that because people are more likely to be at a drugstore than a doctor’s office or critical care facility, they’re more likely to take advantage of easily accessible health care services there.

Simply put, to reach more consumers, health care needs to be present where its customers are.

Exponential growth

According to the Rand Corp., Santa Monica, Calif., the first retail health clinics began opening in 2000, and by 2010 they numbered close to 1,200. In 2012, more than 10 million people used retail health clinics in the United States alone. While this is still a small segment of the overall health care market, this exponential growth demands attention.

What makes retail health clinics more accessible, more user-friendly and more appealing to today’s health care consumers? One answer is design.

Retail establishments have leveraged design to drive sales and promote particular shopping habits for decades, and health care providers and designers can learn a great deal from their practices.

For instance, retail stores always have windows to display goods — the idea is that passersby will look in and see things they may find curious, unusual or enticing, and those items will draw them into the store.

Conversely, items considered necessities — milk or eggs at a grocery store, for example — are farther away from the entrance. The logic is that shoppers will see many additional sale items while walking to the item they must have, so they’re more likely to add to their purchases along the way.

What can health facilities professionals glean from this?

First and foremost, good design attracts consumers and influences behavior. As the health care market becomes ever more consumer-driven, retail health providers must find new ways to compete in a crowded marketplace. Health exchanges have created 8 million health shoppers that soon will have the ability to compare costs and services across multiple channels, and this number is predicted to increase to 87 million by 2018, according to the Advisory Board Co., Washington, D.C.

Six key lessons

Retail health can leverage from retail design to create more impactful retail health environments by adopting six key traits:

1 Be accessible

Walgreens, Deerfield, Ill., is a great example of what this means in today’s market. Everybody knows a Walgreens store is on every corner, but there are other ways its leaders have leveraged design to be more accessible to neighbors.

Rather than creating monolithic boxes, Walgreens designers have added large windows to welcome passersby while ushering in daylight, all of which makes for a more inviting environment for shoppers, employees and neighbors, and creates a more welcoming, approachable store.

Walgreens also is adapting to urban environments in unexpected ways, such as at the flagship State Street location in Chicago, which offers fresh sushi and bottles of wine for urban Chicago shoppers, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls so all goods are fully visible from the street.

And there are in-store design moves, too, such as the info kiosks that remind pharmacists to move away from the counter and go out and mingle with shoppers. This single design move reinforces the notion that the pharmacist and, therefore, Walgreens is an active part of the consumers’ health plan. They’re teaming with consumers on their journeys to a better state of health and well-being.

2 Be specific

Retailers know that they can’t be all things to all people. They must carve out a niche for a specific consumer to create an authentic, customer-centric environment.

Is a health care facility’s market aimed at seniors? Business executives? Parents? The organization has to decide, because in retail, one size simply does not fit all.

One example of this is Children’s Medical Center’s FETAL Center in Dallas, which was designed by San Francisco-based Gensler. The center creates a safe, exclusive home for pregnant women who are experiencing complications, and where they will receive state-of-the-art consultations and counseling.

Because the customer in this instance is distinct, the project team was able to create an environment tailored to their specific needs: A calming, modern design imbues the treatment center with a soothing ambience, which is particularly helpful for families who are undergoing stressful pregnancies.

Design elements, including soft colors, butterfly graphics and custom furniture, are more reminiscent of a spa than a doctor’s office, and everything contributes to a supportive environment for young mothers.

3 Be clear

Connecting patients to health care workers and the information they need to maintain and improve their health is imperative.

Research shows that a patient who understands his or her treatment plan is less likely to be readmitted; however, one in four patients do not understand their treatment plans. Additionally, the National Institutes of Health reports that 50 percent of patients leaving the hospital do not fill their prescriptions.

Design can be one strategy to effect change. For example, health care providers can opt to design spaces that support communication. The Wellness Bar, a conceptual design for Walgreens, is one example. The Wellness Bar encourages customers to ask questions of pharmacists when they are filling prescriptions, with a goal of more direct and meaningful interactions between pharmacists and customers.

Initiating dialogue is one direct way design can trigger better understanding for health care consumers.

4 Be nimble

The trends that impact consumer lifestyles and tastes are always changing. To remain relevant, retail stores are designed to react to mercurial consumer shifts, and retail health design should take note.

For example, most of the fixtures at big box retailers like Target are on wheeled racks. This means that entire departments — such as men’s clothing, for example — can expand or shrink by simply re-merchandising, not remodeling the entire store.

A store like Target can quickly reconfigure to align with seasonal displays and their recent Lilly Pulitzer collaboration is a great example. Because consumer demand was so high, merchandise was only available in stores for a single day. Target was able to quickly adapt in many departments, from women’s clothing to seasonal furniture. Health care can learn much from Target’s example.

The Tulsa (Okla.) Cancer Institute (TCI), also designed by Gensler, offers many ideas. TCI is designed around a carefully choreographed patient experience, centered on maintaining clear sight lines to natural daylight in as many interior spaces as possible.

To design a treatment center ready to shift with ever-evolving cancer treatment options, designers implemented a raised floor as well as unitized, modular, movable partitions. A flexible floor and partition system means that TCI is able to shift and change its interior treatment and research areas, similar to the way that a Target store can shift and change displays.

It’s not as rapid as retail, but it is equally significant because TCI is able to adapt its treatment facilities without remodeling.

5 Be virtual

The concept of being virtual expands on the notion of being accessible, just as consumers are increasingly accessing information online about their health. Virtual presence guarantees that a health care provider can connect with its consumers anywhere they have access to Wi-Fi.

Another thing designers know from the retail industry is that while many things have gone digital, space still matters.

Health care providers have been reticent to embrace self-check-in technology; yet, if it works for the masses at an airport, why can’t it work at a doctor’s office, too?

In designing an app for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, Gensler looked at the ways patients, visitors and staff navigated the space, and learned that technology can enable more effective navigation of a health care provider’s physical space. Combined with signage, the systems are linked and the app enhances each person’s use of on-site signage and wayfinding.

6 Be visible

When consumers walk into Nike Chicago (formerly NikeTown), there is no mistaking where they are. From chandeliers comprising tennis balls to flooring that resembles a basketball court, sports pervade the environment.

Nike’s brand presence permeates the space, as the company has leveraged the best of environmental design. While health care unquestionably will take a more restrained approach, it’s imperative that in an age of brand-competitive health care, consumers should be able to walk into a space (or use a website) and instantly recognize the brand experience they expect from their health care providers.

For example, Advocate Health Care, Chicago, partnered with Gensler to design branded signage around the concept of “The Light Within,” a core element of the faith-based care that shines through Advocate facilities. The design manifests itself in a dimensional logo for signage that is lit from within.

Next, Advocate will implement exterior wayfinding and interior signage across multiple campuses, all executed with the aim of communicating the Advocate brand.

Services and needs

These design strategies aim to align health services around patient needs. They do not target what health care providers wish patients want, but what their patients actually want for themselves.

Consumers have been clear in saying that they’re looking for convenience and flexibility, and health care providers can offer that by designing spaces that are both local and tailored to specific needs.

Designing a patient experience that integrates both physical and virtual experiences is key, while remaining sharply focused on providing a customer-centric experience. 

Sarah Bader is a principal in the Chicago office of design and architecture firm Gensler. She has worked with Walgreens on a number of projects, from designing prototypes for the pharmacy of the future to implementing the “well experience.” She can be reached at sarah_bader@gensler.com.