Chris Connell, chief design officer for the Cleveland Clinic, talks about how why the Ohio health system created his position, priorities he is aiming to tackle in the first year, and why design is so crucial to improving the patient experience. // Interviewed by Bob Kehoe

What is your role as chief design officer?

I’m responsible for our Center for Design, which includes architecture, strategic space planning — how space is apportioned and designed; our Arts & Medicine Institute, which integrates the visual arts, music, performing arts and research to promote healing and to enhance the lives of patients, families, visitors and employees, including the curation and selection of artwork throughout the campuses; and our Office for a Healthy Environment, which addresses wellness and sustainability.

As chief design officer, my overarching responsibility is to deal with any physical elements of design within the organization — from buildings to the most nonclinical aspect of the patient environment. One of the things that interests me most is that it puts effective design of the patient environment right up there as an integral part of their care.

Where does this position sit in the organization?

I report directly to our president and CEO, Toby Cosgrove, M.D.

Why was this position created?

Cleveland Clinic always looks at and considers carefully the design of the patient environment, both in commissioning new buildings and in working with existing ones, so the philosophy isn’t new. 

Our mission has evolved over a number of years. We feel that the creation of consistent, calm, technically proficient environments for patients and our staff really helps to enhance the patient experience and has to be considered — alongside the purely clinical aspects — an important part of health care. When you have so many facilities and a strong reputation, it’s important that people who come to a Cleveland Clinic facility feel that there is a certain standard that they can expect of their surroundings. 

The quality of our surroundings reinforces the consistency of care that our patients can expect. I guess what is new is that my role has been created to bring all of these different areas together internally, to work closely with our construction team and that, in the future, we will drive more of our design internally and give clearer direction to our outside collaborators.

What are some of the initial priorities or issues you’ll be looking at?

We want to create consistency across our facilities, especially in terms of quality. There are so many projects of different scales in the pipeline. 

As an organization, our focus is on creating the best patient care and experience. So, when I look at opportunities, I’m trying to prioritize by areas where I feel we can make the greatest difference as quickly as possible. That may mean working on seemingly tiny projects alongside far bigger, more strategic projects. Everything has to be about continual improvement and, as health care evolves, we need to look ahead.

How would you describe the organization’s design objectives for its facilities? Is there a certain look or feel Cleveland Clinic wants to create?

We try to create consistent, calm environments for our patients — not technically threatening but technically proficient. We want to create places where you feel you are getting the best treatment. There’s a certain degree of unification in that, but we look at every situation differently. 

If someone is going to a Cleveland Clinic facility in the Middle East or Europe, Ohio, Florida or Las Vegas, we want him or her to be able to expect a certain level of quality to the environment and to be able to walk in the front door and experience art and feel calm and relaxed — to counteract any trepidation they may feel. 

What are your plans to improve the patient experience? 

We want a balance between the technology needed in a health care facility and the immediate surroundings. For example, I find waiting areas to be intriguing because no matter how beautifully you design them, nobody wants to spend much time there. This is where design goes beyond just the physical elements. 

My view is that you minimize waiting areas as much as possible. You can provide the technology to patients in an easy interface that tells them the expected wait time until they see their doctors, where the nearest coffee shop is or where there is a curated art exhibition within the facility. Could patients be taken directly to their rooms and wait there to see their consultant? It’s also about how you deal with the use and allocation of space, as well as the pure design, and how you lead people through a facility. 

Then we come to patient rooms. There’s a constant need to balance what equipment is necessary in a patient room for physical care and the fact that equipment can clutter the room and feel intimidating. We want to design rooms that feel more like living rooms than bedrooms without unduly visible technology.

What is the Office for a Healthy Environment’s focus?

This office covers our sustainability efforts. A big part of that is how we interface with the community immediately surrounding our facilities and beyond, not just with visible events like farmers markets, but with how we use energy and how our buildings themselves impact the well-being of our patients. 

Sustainability is extremely important to us. We have many new buildings and also existing building stock, and we need to make sure they are used in the best possible way and kept up-to-date in terms of design and technology. We need to use energy as efficiently as possible for the future, ensure that we move our staff around efficiently and create the best and healthiest environment for our patients. That’s really the core of it.

What sustainability objectives or issues will you address? 

Although I’ve recently just arrived here to assume my new role, I’ve been involved with Cleveland Clinic for four or five years on two key projects, including its master plan for the main campus and the health education campus we’re building. 

That is a great example of what I call fundamental sustainable thinking. With the health education campus, the original plan was for four separate buildings — two separate schools of medicine, one school of dental medicine and a school of nursing. By combining those four buildings into one facility and creating shared teaching facilities, we saved around 40 percent in the area of the building. 

By putting a covered court in the middle, we reduced facade areas and potential heat loss. By using Microsoft’s HoloLens [a self-contained holographic computer] and creating a virtual anatomy program rather than using cadavers, we eliminated the need for deleterious chemicals and excessive ventilation. 

There’s no substitute for being involved early and being able to make strategic decisions before a shovel breaks ground. This role means we can oversee projects throughout their life spans.

The Connell File

CV

  • Chief design officer in the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Design.
  • Responsible for any physical elements of design within the organization — from buildings to most nonclinical aspects of the patient environment.
  • Responsible for the design of the new Health Education Campus for Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic to create a new model for the future of health education.

Accomplishments

  • Involved in the design of Cleveland Clinic London.
  • As a partner at architecture firm Foster + Partners, played a key role in the creation of the Cleveland Clinic master plan, designed to provide a welcoming campuslike environment for patients and serve as a road map for future development.
  • Worked on more than 100 building design projects around the world in 28 years with Foster + Partners, and received more than 40 awards.

Education

  • Studied architecture at the Glasgow School of Art, earning both a bachelor of arts and a master’s degree.