Designing for Women in Veterinary Medicine
By: Heather E. Lewis, AIA, NCARB
Photo By Doug Edmunds, Edmunds Studio
I spent a day last week visiting a graduate level architecture studio and was struck by the even split between young women and men entering the formerly male-dominated profession of architecture. Veterinary medicine has seen a much more profound demographic shift. According to 2010 AVMA statistics, for the first time there are more female than male veterinarians in the United States. Women now account for approximately 80 percent of veterinary students in the United States and Canada. Many have speculated why this change has occurred, but few have discussed how the prevalence of women veterinarians will affect the way hospitals are designed.
While there are always exceptions to any gender stereotype, women and men are different in their approach to the business of veterinary medicine. In general, women are still more involved than men in raising children and are therefore more interested in the work/life balance. This trend is generational as well. Gen X employees are much more prone to float in and out of the workforce. Gen Y veterinarians who are just now moving through or graduating from veterinary school will blur the lines between work and personal life. www.time.com/time/magazing/article/0,9171,1640395,00.html
A document released in March 2010 by the Executive Office of the United States President’s Council of Economic Advisors states that “almost one-third of firms cite costs or limited funds as obstacles to implementing workplace flexibility arrangements. However, the benefits of adopting such management practices can outweigh the costs by reducing absenteeism, lowering turnover, improving the health of workers, and increasing productivity.” If workplace flexibility arrangements are important, how will this affect the way veterinary hospitals are designed? We have seen these trends become more important:
Focus on Interior Environments
- Designing for community space. With a greater percentage of part time veterinarians and staff, it is helpful to encourage collaboration and communication in the work place. Design the hospital around some gathering areas where formal or informal meetings can be held. This community space has been used by some practices as a child gathering area for after school hours or to assist working parents with gaps in child care.
- Create open work environments. Women are natural communicators. Use this to your advantage! Break down walls between the working spaces of the hospital. Encourage opening the door, literally and physically, between doctors and clients. For example, glass windows in exam rooms offer clients privacy but allow the hospital to feel more open and welcoming.
- Reduce office space. The days of giving each person an office are over. Work stations can be shared most of the time, and a lot of work can be done on the go with mobile workstations or mobile devices. However, don’t forget to allow for privacy as well. One small, shared quiet room can suffice to provide for personal space for things such as a private phone call.
Just as women are often in charge of designing their own home environments, they are often more interested in the feel as well as the function of their work environments. We see this as tremendously positive. The Industry today expects the interior spaces in veterinary hospitals to be more nuanced, more sophisticated, and more deliberate. This in turn encourages us as architects to push the design envelope and to create spaces that make people feel good.
To be specific, we believe that demographic trends have helped to influence these results:
- Use of a lot more color in interior spaces. While there are many men with a great sense of design and appreciation for color, women are generally more interested in the way color affects the experience of being in a space. A unified interior color scheme can make the difference between a nice place to work and a great place to work.
- Emphasis on creating quality environments throughout the hospital, not just in the client area. Once again, women are generally more aware of the psychological effects of well-designed and comfortable work spaces. Medical areas can and do benefit from a little more inspiration, as these are the spaces where the true work is done.
- Focus on reducing injury. Women are less likely to use brute strength to move patients. As a result, we incorporate more creative arrangements and better designs for working with, lifting, and moving patients in exam and medical spaces.
Speaking of reducing injury, the prevalence of women in the field has had an effect on workplace safety. In particular, anesthetic gases must be handled in more sophisticated ways than in the past, as these gases are dangerous for unborn babies. Active anesthetic gas scavenging is now a given in any hospital.
Radiation safety must also be taken seriously. Ionizing radiation is potentially extremely harmful to pregnant women and babies. As your hospital is being designed, be sure to develop good protocols for radiation safety and have your design reviewed by a nuclear physicist to ensure that the radiology rooms are properly shielded.
Caring for Animals
It may be cliché, but women are often more sensitive in their care for animals and are more inclined to advocate for their welfare (Herzog, H.A. (2007)). Women comprise an overwhelming majority in the animal welfare professions. Overall, a greater focus on animal welfare within the context of a veterinary hospital creates positive dialog about the way animals should be housed, even over short time periods.
The great news is that healthy animal environments are also preferred by clients. At my own veterinarian’s office, I personally expect my pets to be housed in spaces that support their health and wellbeing. Here are some ways that these expectations may be better addressed:
Generally, use the same design standard for animal spaces as you would for client spaces. This will drive you to consider better finishes, quality lighting, and more attention to detail.
- Separate dogs and cats. There really is no reason to house them in the same rooms, and even small hospitals can be designed to separate feline and canine patients.
- Provide adequate space. Do not keep cats in small spaces. It is not good for their health. All animals should be able to fully stretch in their enclosures. UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine frequently references research that indicates that cortisol levels in temporarily housed cats drop significantly when they are provided with 11 square feet of space.
- Control noise. Noise is a big stressor for dogs and cats alike.
- Create natural environments. Last month I wrote about bringing nature indoors. Nowhere is natural light and fresh air more important than in animal wards.
In considering the shift toward women in the veterinary profession, we have selected some very positive effects on the way hospitals are being designed. The reality is that this change has created both good results and some challenges that must be overcome. For example, there is a dire and still growing shortage of food animal veterinarians, as many women prefer not to pursue careers in food animal medicine.
Regardless of the overall picture, you have the opportunity with a new construction or renovation project to draw from the most positive trends. Designing a hospital with a new perspective can help you in many ways. Challenge yourselves to create more collaborative spaces, safer places to work, and better animal environments. Integrate the concept of community into your practice. Even if you are in a practice that is currently owned by male veterinarians, remember that a hospital designed with a woman’s approach will be a magnet for attracting the next generation of top veterinary school graduates.