Expertise / Health / Designer insight

Nursing a passion for design

Why does a nurse decide to become an architect? Because working in hospitals made her realise that they could be better designed for both staff and patients, says HASSELL Principal Megan Reading.

In the middle of a hectic 12 hour shift on the intensive care ward at Melbourne's Alfred Hospital, nurse Megan Reading simply wanted five minutes peace.

Beeping machines, questions from anxious families and demands from harried colleagues weighed heavily on the 24 year-old as she labored to deliver care to people on the brink of life and death.

"I was in my early 20s and dealing with more critical situations in a day than most people would see in a lifetime," says Megan.

"Patients with cancer or HIV, serious burns and victims of road traffic accidents - people whose lives would never be the same again and whose wellbeing was totally reliant on my observations and actions."

For Megan, who grew up on the vast expanses of Australia's Wimmera Plains, the hospital environment was starkly at odds with the fresh air and sunlight approach to health and wellbeing she had been raised on.

"I found the electric lights and air-conditioning totally oppressive and saw the impact it had not only on my colleagues, but also on the mental state of patients and their families," says Megan.

"The layout of the building was based on what was easiest for the hospital operator rather than what would deliver the best patient outcomes and I found myself constantly questioning how the space could be improved to make it more user friendly."

Megan's interest in design grew as she increasingly sought creative relief away from the rigours and process of medicine, until finally – aged 24 – Megan decided to leave nursing and enrolled at Melbourne's RMIT to study architecture.

"The perspective I brought to architecture, both from my upbringing in rural Victoria and my nursing career, was totally different to that of my university peers," says Megan.

"I would analyse people's interaction with and use of a space, rather than having a preconceived idea of how a building should look."

Upon graduation, Megan found clients also responded well to her firsthand experience on the wards.

"I spoke the same language as them, and was able to translate their needs into tangible, achievable designs," says Megan. "It helped me earn their trust quickly and opened doors to challenge many of the more traditional approaches to healthcare design.

"I knew that elements such as external balconies and quiet courtyards for staff and patients cost money, but they delivered better outcomes for everyone.

"Providing a space where staff can gather their thoughts and re-focus after assisting a family to turn off a life support machine or breaking bad news to a patient, helps reduce stress, improve performance and, in the long term, can increase the amount of time people choose to work in the hospital environment."

It was this willingness to challenge the norm that led Megan, now a Principal in the HASSELL Brisbane studio, to be involved in a number of award winning Australian health projects including the $1.7 billion Gold Coast University Hospital (GCUH), St Vincent's Private Hospital redevelopment in Darlinghurst, Sydney and the Rockhampton Hospital Cancer Care Centre in Queensland.

"It is often the simple things people miss when they are in hospital," says Megan. "Access to everyday activities can put people at ease and leaves them better equipped to deal with the highly stressful situations they are facing.

"For example, we know that simple gardening tasks can not only help boost the mobility and dexterity of patients, but can also improve their overall mental health, confidence and sleep patterns. That was why at GCUH we included potting benches and raised planter beds in the outdoor mental health and rehabilitation areas.

"Other non-clinical elements such as play areas for children offer a much needed distraction from long, boring hospital visits and you'll struggle to find anyone who doesn't appreciate a decent cup of coffee and fresh sandwich from the onsite café."

While Megan's career path has been a little unconventional, her love for medicine remains.

"I haven't nursed in nearly 20 years, but the fundamentals of care don't change," says Megan.

"If you treat a patient holistically - looking after their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing – and mirror that in the treatment of your staff, you will not only see a higher quality of care, but reduce the number of errors and create a more cohesive healing environment."

_Contact Megan Reading, Principal

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