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Weekly Chew: Mary Gordon does away with dated medical clinic design

To call Mary Gordon’s professional career thus far eclectic is somewhat of an understatement. In previous incarnations, Gordon has donned a number of hats including AMP business manager, chief executive of architectural firm ASA Crone (which she rebranded to ‘Ignite’), managing director of Hay Group NZ. She’s even worked in corporate treasury in Melbourne and on business consulting projects that include architectural designs for five-star hotels in Sydney and Dubai. Plus there’s the high-end residential and commercial fitouts in Auckland. Oh, and did we mention she also designs her own clothing? Last year Gordon assumed the role of ShoreCare chief executive and less than two years into the job, she's transformed traditional clinic design with the new ShoreCare Accident and Medical Clinic at Smales Farm on Auckland’s North Shore.

Opened by Minister of Health Tony Ryall last month—with its gleaming glass and steel, natural stone floors, and light-timbered feature walls to the spacious and light-filled waiting and treatment rooms—the clinic takes a patient-centric approach to design to make patients feel valued.

Gordon explains why, when it comes to medical clinics, functionality as well as good design don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

What were some of the challenges in designing the clinic?

I spent ages with a couple of our clinical team working on a really good layout and functionality, even before I started talking to any architects. Deciding what architect was going to work with me was a big challenge. I had a couple of architects who just didn’t get it. I didn’t want an architect coming in that wanted to go the more traditional way. I needed an architect that would get what I wanted. I was quite strict with the brief. My design philosophy early on was "this is what we’re having and I’m not prepared to compromise." I’ve worked with architects that sometimes don’t get the practicality. I didn’t want it to just look good, it had to actually work as well. 

We could also have done with a bigger space. I would have liked more room to fit everything in. 

Which architect did you end up using?

I went with Lance Herbst from Herbst Architects. He really got on board. For him it was different working with someone like me that had such a strong design philosophy on what I wanted. From the start I wanted it to be all white, but Lance softened it with the wood and he’s added some very nice features. 

How exactly does the ShoreCare Accident and Medical Clinic differ from other clinics in terms of its design features?

The clinic is making a statement that says “we’re going to be here for the next 15 years, let’s actually provide a nice public space”. 

The patient, doctor and nurse flow is very important. We’ve got a central nurses station. We’ve made the customer experience the main feature of this clinic. The patient is always at the forefront. We’ve had to create duplicate treatment rooms, and that’s not the norm in an accident and medical facility. Everything is in that room. Doctors can log in to any touch-screen computer in the clinic to call up their files or see patient X-rays.  We don’t have to keep moving patients around—the clinical staff come to them and they don’t have to keep asking patients for the same information. It’s a lot less hassle for the patient. 

In the accident and medical clinic, it’s floor to ceiling white glass because I wanted to create a really light, clean, fresh feel. When you get into spaces like the emergency department of a hospital, it can get quite dark and depressing. You’ve got some rooms that don’t have natural light. By using white glass, it reflects and creates a nice tranquil environment. I didn’t want to have anything heavy in there. I didn’t want the normal GP look either that looks like a house or a done-up bungalow. 

I wanted the space to be clinical and clean. There’s nothing worse than going to a medical facility and feeling like it’s dirty. I wanted it to be very modern and something that wouldn’t date. 

But you do have splashes of colour in other parts of the building?

We wanted the clinical space to be clinical, but with the reception area and the waiting room, we wanted it to be a bit softer. Lance had the idea of a curved wall with wood. It works really well. It softens the space. 

We have some beanbags on a big rug in front of the kids TV in the waiting area, as well as climb-on puppies for the kids. 

We’ve got music and videos on to keep people entertained while they wait. And if they don’t want to watch that they can go to another area where it’s not there. But that’s their choice. We want people to relax. 

Was it easy to get approval from the board for a design that is a departure from standard clinic design?

The board knows I have a really strong design background. I’m about good design, form and function. I was so passionate about it. I didn’t really have to do a big sell to anyone. 

Did the design end up costing more?

In reality, probably slightly more, but it’s marginal. And at the end of the day, I don’t need to refurbish five years down the track. The only thing I may need to do is paint the walls.  In the public spaces I put natural stone, so we won’t need to retile. In the waiting/reception area, we’ve got plastic moulded seats. In the treatment rooms we’ve got plastic chairs that came from Europe and they’re guaranteed for years. You do a cost benefit analysis and you’re better off spending a little more upfront and getting something that’s hard wearing, that has a guarantee and that’s actually going to take the knocks and the wear. On average we get 130 people a day. On public holidays we’re up over 200-250 people a day. And that’s 365 days a year. And we’re open for 24 hours. 

What’s been the response from staff?

The staff love it. The moral has gone up. The feedback’s been phenomenal. People say they love it because it’s so clean and fresh. 

How would you describe current medical clinic design?

One thing that always gets me is the effort made to have really nicely designed commercial spaces like shopping centres and hotel lobbies. But with every medical centre I’ve been to, you look at the furniture and ask, “do I really want to sit on that?” There’s been no effort made. I’ve never understood why medical facilities can’t actually have functionality as well as good design 

A lot of health places are dated, and that’s due to things like funding. We had the chance to do something from scratch and we were very fortunate to be able to do that. Clinics need to be durable and practical, but they also have to have good design. I think the public want more from their environment now. Health can’t stay grotty. It’s got to evolve because everything else has evolved. It’s about creating a nice space where people can actually feel quite relaxed. It’s about being clean and modern.