Cancer Care as It Should Be: How MSK Uses Thoughtful Design to Help People Heal

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“We’ve got you.”

That simple but powerful idea sums up what Suzen Heeley and her team hope people feel when they step inside Memorial Sloan Kettering for cancer care.

As Executive Director of MSK’s Design and Construction Department, Ms. Heeley helps determine what people feel, hear, and experience when they come to MSK. She oversees everything from the stylish, comfortable furnishings in common areas to the layout of infusion treatment rooms where patients can customize their surroundings with the touch of a button.

“When patients and their families walk through the door of our facilities, we want them to feel an immediate sense of comfort and to help them relax,” she says. “We want them to take a deep breath and know they are in good hands and can focus on recovering their health and well-being.”

To understand how Ms. Heeley helps people when they need it most, we spoke to her as she and her team put the finishing touches on The David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
Learn more about the David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering, which offers nearly every aspect of outpatient cancer care across many specialties.
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How does your team try to help people with cancer?

To many patients, cancer feels like they are losing control. We want to give people a sense of safety and serenity. That often works on a level they aren’t conscious of. For instance, we try to design our waiting rooms so that they don’t feel overcrowded. The solution isn’t always just to add more seats; sometimes the answer is creating different seating group types, so people who want to be alone have that option, and a family of eight can sit together in another grouping. It’s about allowing people to choose.

We’ve also worked with our tech colleagues at MSK to give patients control of their environment in private infusion rooms where they receive chemotherapy. The design allows the patient to control the temperature, lighting, and window shades with the tap of a button, instead of having to ask for help. Being comfortable and self-sufficient helps patients regain control and reduce stress.

Our facilities also feature a carefully curated art collection, and, when possible, we create outdoor spaces like walking paths or terraces. We want to uplift people with beauty and diversions. For each project, we ask ourselves: What can we do to surprise and delight people during a difficult time in their lives?

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How does your work help MSK care teams?

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Memorial Sloan Kettering has locations throughout New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, and Westchester. Find the location nearest you or call 800-525-2225 to make an appointment.
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At MSK, we care about the personal touch throughout a patient’s visit, beginning with a warm welcome and giving them a thoughtful sendoff when they leave. We try to help. At outpatient facilities like the Josie Robertson Surgery Center, MSK Monmouth, MSK Bergen, and MSK Nassau, it didn’t feel right to have a large reception desk. We wanted to break down barriers. We designed small round kiosks we call beehives, so MSK staff can move around the space with a mobile device and greet patients sitting down, at eye level, like you do with friends and family. We want to help make the patient experience feel as much like a warm hug as we can.

At The David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering and other facilities, MSK Carepass is an electronic wearable badge system that tracks patients, so our staff can find them, instead of patients having to find staff. This untethers patients so they don’t need to wait near a reception desk anymore. They can grab a bite to eat at our cafés, go on an art walk, or sit and chat.

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What inspires you and your team?

Often it starts with the MSK staff. We know that one of the receptionists at the Rockefeller Outpatient Pavilion has an incredible sense of how to help people who are struggling to process difficult news. He helps them find a quiet place where they can compose themselves.

We used that as inspiration for two personal comfort rooms at The David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering. They are located on the ground and lower floors and have soft furnishings and very subdued lighting. They are meant to be a place for people who want privacy to collect their thoughts and ready themselves to face the world again. In other facilities, we’ve made sure there are discreet exits from consult rooms, so people don’t have to walk back through the waiting area if they would like privacy after hearing distressing news.

We also find inspiration in places way outside healthcare. For instance, we saw the trend in airports to make waiting areas less stress-inducing, bringing new food and convenience options to the gate. We hired one of the pioneers in rethinking airports — a company called ICRAVE — and had them help us with experiential design.

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How do you use patient feedback?

We use it in everything we do. For instance, a family member of a patient told us that doing something physical helped him relieve stress. That’s one of the reasons we have video games, board games, jigsaw puzzles, and other activities at our facilities, to give people a helpful distraction.

We also make sure to include people who have been MSK patients in our decisions. For instance, members of the MSK Patient and Family Advisory Council for Quality helped us choose the art to feature at The David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering. We always learn something we wouldn’t have thought of on our own when we ask former patients how they perceived their experiences.

For each project, we ask ourselves what can we do to surprise and delight people during a difficult time in their lives.
Suzen Heeley Executive Director of Design and Construction
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How does The David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering fit into your designs?

The David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering is the newest and largest facility we’ve opened recently. Each time we open a new center, we incorporate what’s worked well at other facilities. The David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering benefits from everything we’ve learned about making the environment an active participant in healing.

At The David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering, we’re also focused on making care more convenient for people by integrating easy-to-use technology for smartphones that helps patients with everything from parking the car to sending questions to their care team. It’s all been proven at other MSK facilities and is woven into the exceptional care from our staff, so people can feel more in control of their care. That’s our goal.

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