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Hastings Center Report

The Bioethics of Built Space: Health Care Architecture as a Medical Intervention

Abstract: Decisions made in health care architecture have profound effects on patients, families, and staff. Drawing on research in medicine, neuroscience, and psychology, design is being used increasingly often to alter specific behaviors, mediate interpersonal interactions, and affect patient outcomes. As a result, the built environment in health care should in some instances be considered akin to a medical intervention, subject to ethical scrutiny and involving protections for those affected. Here we present two case studies. The first includes work aimed at manipulating the behavior of persons with neurocognitive impairments, often in long-term care facilities. This is done to ensure safety and minimize conflicts with staff, but it raises questions about freedom, consent, and disclosure. The second concerns design science in service of improved outcomes, which involves research on improving patient outcomes or the performance of health care teams. There is evidence that in some ICU designs, certain rooms correlate to better outcomes, giving rise to questions about equity and fairness. In other cases, a facility’s architecture seems to be putting a finger on the scale of equipoise, raising questions about the intentionality of clinical judgment, freedom of choice, and disclosure. As a result of this innovation occurring outside the boundaries of traditional care delivery and oversight, important ethical questions emerge concerning both the individual patient and patient populations. We discuss, analyze, and make recommendations about each and suggest future directions for these and related issues.

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