How Apple Stores, Starbucks And Airline Industries Inspired Healthcare Designers

There are only so many new ideas architects and designers can think of when it comes to the future of healthcare design. Every now and then there are re-imagined ideas and implementation of those ideas when it comes to the attention given to the patient’s experience.

The University of Minnesota’s new clinics & surgery center (M Health), a five story, 342,000 sq. ft outpatient center in Minneapolis, incorporates consumer-industry design ideas to make the clinic more patient-friendly. The article, titled, “What Health Care Designers Can Learn from The Apple Store,” focuses on how Cannon Design and M Health took ideas from retail, airports and office designs to better the future of healthcare systems in the decades ahead. 

As Mike Pukszta, the Cannon Design health practice leader, says “If you look at M Health, you have a ‘small’ competitor due south called the Mayo Clinic. When you look at who you’re going up against—what is recognized as the finest clinic—the task is pretty large. It’s like a new computer company going up against Apple.”

So, when the firm planned to renovate how patients interacted with the health center, it looked at industries outside healthcare to inform its design. Among these industries were airports and retails-consumer tech.

Natural Light In Some Of The Surgical Rooms-Not Seen In Most Hospital Designs

Airline Industry 


Airline industries fixed their biggest customer service problem a few years ago. In the past, checking in included standing in line and receiving a paper ticket. Now, you can check into an airport before you arrive by printing an e-ticket or bringing it up on your phone. Besides going thru the security checkpoint, people get to board a plane without having to talk to a single person. Another option available to travelers is using automated kiosks to check-in, handle baggage needs, and change or upgrade seats. The idea behind this change was for the travelers to get to the final point, the airplane, the fastest and most efficient way.

Pukszta and his team made a connection with the changes in airline check-in and its purpose with the scope of changes they wanted to make to the new design of M Health. They saw a similarity with the user experience of health care, which requires a lot of paperwork and involves many steps before reaching the end destination, a doctor. 

Based on the information and the researched gathered by the designers,  the new system included eliminating anything that slowed down the patient journey in the clinic, largely involving doing all the paperwork. So, now patients fill everything out online before their appointment instead of stopping at a reception desk to check in, waiting to get called up, filling out the forms, returning to the desk to submit them, and then waiting again to be admitted.

Apple: The Consumer Tech Retail Store


To figure out what the common, frustrating health care experiences, M Health conducted focus groups with people who weren’t patients at the time. Subjects were asked to think about outside healthcare experiences they admired and the reason why they would keep going back to those places. Time and efficiency were common threads, which is why Apple came up as an inspiration. Apple mostly wants convenience and for things to go more smoothly taking into consideration that people have busy lives and they love the idea of doing things ahead of time.

Office Design Space Planning

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Besides the patient experience, budget played a supporting role in the design of M Health as well. Building a new clinic & surgery center with the same spatial breakdown of the old center that would include private offices and exam rooms for each physician would have cost $60–70 million more, according to Cannon Design’s calculations. The thoughts and ideas revolved around trying to increase the number of patients in a much smaller space, yet not reducing the quality of the patient experience. As Pukszta says,“How do we put the same amount of eggs in a smaller basket? Can we see more patient volume, but in 50% less space?”

The challenge directed them towards contemporary office planning, which has evolved from isolated private offices to open-plan arrangements and shared work spaces and desks. The open-plan office design idea not only meets the needs of today’s employees, but has also proved to be a strategy that’s both spatially and financially much more efficient. Inspired by the idea of open-plan set ups and the fact that the private office and exam room for each doctor led to a lot of wasted space, the designers of M Health focused on creating spaces for patients instead of basing the number of rooms upon the number of physicians. So, the new design went from building more for accommodation to making sure that every space was being continuously used to maximize its utility. 

 To solve the problem of managing the flow of people, they looked for a technical solution which involved a system called Care Connect. By placing a tracking badge on everyone in the clinic including patients, doctors, nurses, maintenance staff, etc,  a series of sensors built into the ceiling records the location of each badge every three seconds.

University of Minnesota Medical

According to previous research, putting people in a cancer treatment together causes and improvement in their next treatment because it creates a support network. Tracking the location of each patient lets M Health accomplish a number of things.Believe it or not, it helps with privacy by not having to call out someones name in a waiting area and the provider already knowing know to walk right up to. Another benefit of the system is its capability of showing how long someone has been waiting. An alarm goes off if they have spent more than 15 minutes in the waiting area, or 10 minutes in an exam room. This feature of the system also cuts the patient’s time spent at the clinic. Tracking the patient location also lets M Health know which exam rooms are free and which are in use. The maintenance team get a signal once a patient’s visit is over and he/she leaves the exam room, allowing for a  constant cycle of use for each space.

According to Johnson, “We’ve had so many patients say that it really works. Most hospitals use this type of system to track assets like IV poles and wheelchairs so you can find the instruments faster. What is interesting is using it on people.”

Even though the implementation of these ideas may seem easy, there have been some challenges with the technology. The servers couldn’t handle the load when it was first installed, so the hospital had to rebuild some of the hardware to be able to process the amount of information Care Connect gathers.

The design team paid attention the patients privacy level by providing sliding frosted glass panels between the bays, giving the patients the option of it being open or closed. As Pukszta mentions,”It’s designed for privacy when patients need it, but also so they can ‘collaborate’ when they want.”

Starbucks: An Inspiration for Staff Spaces

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Instead of spreading staff lounges throughout the clinic,which was the practice in the old building, Cannon Design dedicated the back half of the building to a rich, multi-level social space for employees. This idea created social spaces designed for spontaneous interactions. “If we’re going to create a new center around the ultimate patient experience, let’s also create the most incredible staff space,” Pukszta says.

The staff enters from the back of the building to a multi-story open atrium that acts as a hub. The area receives plenty of natural light. Communal tables as well as one-person tables are also provided for those who need more privacy and comfortable seating. “It’s like a four-story Starbucks with a place to get coffee, places to sit, and places to collaborate.”

The staff lounge is viewed as a hub to encourage collaboration- One communal space vs. smaller lounges spread through M Health

Moving Forward: Designing For Now And The Future


Present-day best practices influenced a lot of M Health’s design; however it also was designed keeping in mind the idea of moving forward. As Johnson says, “One of the design principles we asked for was flexibility, knowing that things are going to change exponentially but buildings don’t. She wanted to avoid the need for heavy-duty renovations in the future, so each of the clinics is modular. If one department suddenly needs more capacity, it could easily flow in to an adjacent clinic since the spaces are more or less the same standardized design. We will be able to use this building for a long time based on the design elements and changes we anticipate.”

The mesh of technology and creative space planning caused the overall design of the space to be 25% smaller than M Health’s old facility and the number of exam rooms dropping from 450 to 250; however, the organization expects to be able to accommodate 40% more patient volume. With the low profit margins seen over the years in the health care industry (2-3%), the design and strategies used at the clinic create better care for more patients now and for may years to come. 

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