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ASU team explores intersection of culture, design and health

group photo of ASU students and faculty
December 05, 2014

Loretta Wall believes that health care providers too often try to help patients without knowing what they value and what they feel they need. In many cultures, she said, individuals want to feel a sense of community and family, and a connection to what’s important to them.

“We must seek to understand the client’s perspective of their needs, and approach solutions from their standpoint,” she said.

Students and faculty from ASU’s College of Nursing & Health Innovation, the College of Health Solutions and The Design School in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts spent seven days in Australia this fall expanding their perspectives of culture and health by exploring the intersection of restorative environments and health care for indigenous populations.

Directed by James Shraiky, assistant professor and director of health care design initiatives at The Design School, Gerri Lamb, associate professor with the College of Nursing & Health Innovation, and Rebecca Fish-Ewan, associate professor of landscape architecture with The Design School, studio trips provide students from diverse academic and professional backgrounds with an opportunity to collaborate on solutions to real community problems with stakeholders from local and international organizations.

“The environment is an important part of the system of healing,” Shraiky said. “Future health care students can play a big role in shaping, reshaping and creating their work environment or system environments at large.”

For Wall, a registered nurse with Banner Health, a student in ASU’s Master of Healthcare Innovation program and a member of the studio team, learning about the importance of connection and community gave her perspective in her own life as a care provider and team member.

“I am able to apply my new level of compassion and understanding to the people and clients I serve daily,” she said.

The studio team is comprised of students from the Master of Healthcare Innovation program, the doctoral program in Nursing and Healthcare Innovation, and the undergraduate nutrition program who have come together with students from landscape architecture, architecture, visual communication, urban design and design research.

The students had a chance to work with their peers from the University of Newcastle’s nursing, speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, family studies and architecture programs. Together, the two groups explored characteristics of restorative environments, discussed their experiences of health care in both countries and made recommendations about bringing restorative environments and health care together to improve the health care experience.

“Working together, the students draw from a much broader set of assessment and research tools and solutions than they would alone,” Lamb said. “The team working on the program and facility design, for instance, has evaluated health care, design and organizational research; they’ve observed our client’s facilities and interviewed administrators and staff, and they’re integrating evidence-based research and facility design in their proposal.”

Loretta Wall has learned that interdisciplinary approaches to system problems – including gaps in the provision of health care, often provide better quality solutions than seeking solutions from one perspective. As a nurse, she has applied her newfound knowledge to her interactions with her coworkers.

“The advantages of team-based research and patient care are great,” she said. “Before the studio trip, I would seek the opinions of only nurses. Now I am more open to seeking the perspective of others because people from other disciplines can see things in a way that I can’t.”

Beginning with the famous Sydney Botanical Gardens and Hyde Park, the group explored numerous settings to identify central elements of restorative environments. They recorded their reflections in journals and sketchbooks, and later shared their experiences with their peers and instructors.

Shraiky said it is the small conversations between classmates from different disciplines that expand and shape their understanding.

“While walking in Sydney, a design student pointed at a building’s architecture while a nursing student mentioned that the first thing she noticed was how unsafe it was to cross the street in front of the building,” he said. “The design student was able to include this element in their observation because of what the nursing student mentioned.”

Students also had an opportunity to interview members of the Awakabal and Mindaribba aboriginal land councils and the staff of the Awakabal co-operative and medical center. They toured the Yamuloong Centre, which included a walk on Yamuloong’s Bush Tucker trail for a guided tour of native bush plants of Australia and their use in aboriginal culture.

“The biggest takeaway from the trip for me was spending time with the native aboriginals and hearing their stories about being one with the earth,” said Brian Rojas, a master of architecture student at ASU. “It has inspired me to look at things with a more open mind, and not to take nature for granted.”

Jonathan Lilley, a member of the Worimi community and a guide at the Murrook Cultural Center, took the students on a strenuous and beautiful walkabout through the aboriginal heritage site at Worimi while he shared aboriginal history and myths, and described the relationship between land, health and cultural identity.

“As the world populations continue to inhabit cities, landscape architects and urban designers have an increasing responsibility to ensure city dwellers can access nearby nature,” said Rebecca Fish-Ewan, associate professor of landscape architecture at ASU. “It's essential to addressing mental and physical health concerns facing urban populations, such as stress-related illness, depression and obesity.”

Based on their discoveries in Australia, studio team members are preparing to recommend new programs and landscape designs to benefit Phoenix-based Native American Connections, a nonprofit organization that provides members of the local community with culturally appropriate behavioral health, affordable housing and community development services.

Recommendations from the students will include a new community center program, the design for co-educational living for their new wellness and housing facility, restorative healing landscape design for the facilities and plans to enhance the walkability around the facilities.

“Gerri, James and Rebecca have created an environment where intense learning occurs, both in the studio and on location, internationally and stateside,” said Eve Krahe, director of Healthcare Innovation programs at ASU. “They are doing groundbreaking and boundary-pushing work with the studio students. Our Master of Healthcare Innovation students have reported that their experiences have been life-changing.”

Written by Denise Kronsteiner