A Seat at the Table

By Irisa Gold

Jefferson’s Specialty Care Pavilion Is Redefining the Patient Experience for the Most VulnerabIe

6,500 pieces of steel…Check.

19 stories… Check.

Three levels of parking…Check.

300 exam rooms, 10 operating rooms, imaging, and lab services… Check. Check. Check.

Specialized seating to meet the needs of the neurodiverse community... CHECK.

When Jefferson Health opens the doors of the state-of-the-art Specialty Care Pavilion in 2024, it will offer cutting-edge, convenient, and centralized access to care for the majority of signature medical specialties.

Each detail… every nuance... was deliberately conceived and built with the needs of the patient squarely in focus. The facility, which will open on the corner of 11th and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, is designed to break down the barriers to receiving personalized care and provide a truly exceptional patient experience for ALL patients and the communities Jefferson serves under one roof.

One in 54 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which affects three areas of development—social skills, communication, and behavior. Neurodiversity encompasses not only those on the autism spectrum, but anyone who may experience communication difficulties, which could include the population as it ages.

However, in today’s healthcare environment, the needs of the neurodiverse community are often not addressed. As each child will grow up to become a neurodiverse adult, it is critical to take a closer look at available services for this vulnerable and underrepresented population, for whom the average healthcare setting can be overwhelming and inaccessible. 

As the Specialty Care Pavilion’s construction began, Wendy J. Ross, MD, director of the Jefferson Center for Autism and Neurodiversity, also started from ground up, speaking with neurodiverse individuals and the aging population to learn what features they would like to find in a building designed to provide for their care. She examined both physical design, which encompasses lighting, colors, acoustics, and textiles, and processes, in order to incorporate programs to make it easier for these patients to receive medical care that encourages comfort and healing.  

Dr. Ross then approached Robert Melville, an adjunct professor in Jefferson’s Industrial Design department, about an innovative multidisciplinary project around creating special “neurodiverse furniture” for the Specialty Care Pavilion. Students Isaac Savinese, Rachael Hannah, Nick Galie, and Elijah Jones spent seven weeks in the summer of 2021 on this collaborative effort.

“This is a growing demographic, that at present is not being catered to in healthcare furniture design,” Dr. Ross shares. “When we program for the most vulnerable of us, everybody benefits. Everybody deserves a chance to belong.”

The team took field trips to local design shops and met with people on the autism spectrum to help guide their ideation process. They worked to conceptualize, research, and fabricate a chair that could offer comfort for neurodiverse and other anxious patients. The aim was that this would be different from typical open seating, thereby providing privacy and catering to the needs of the neurodiverse patient as well as those who may feel overwhelmed in sensory environments or simply need a moment of respite in a crowded or stressful space.

When we program for the most vulnerable of us, everybody benefits. Everybody deserves a chance to belong.

Wendy Ross, MD Director of the Jefferson Center for Autism and Neurodiversity

The properties of this seating innovation are beneficial for everyone, and could be ideal for populations including nursing mothers, bariatric patients, and the elderly. The design also has the potential to expand into other environments, including the education space.

The students’ work is a wonderful example of the benefits of Jefferson’s signature Nexus Learning approach, which combines engaged, active learning with multidisciplinary collaboration to solve real-world problems. Additionally, it beautifully illustrates Jefferson’s mission that “we improve lives” for this unique population.

The Americans with Disabilities Act currently does not adequately address the alteration of public spaces to accommodate those with less visible disabilities like autism and other neurodiverse conditions. As Dr. Ross concludes, “We are reimagining what healthcare could look like and reimagining medical care for everyone. It is critical that when we think about diversity, inclusion, and equity, we consider the population affected by disabilities like neurodiversity. Everyone matters, everyone belongs, and everyone deserves a seat at the table. We’re designing that seat now.”