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Doctor’s offices are terrifying. This one is designed to calm your nerves

Primary care startup Parsley Health designed its new clinic in New York City around the healing principles of biophilia.

At first glance, the new clinic of the primary care startup Parsley Health looks nothing like a doctor’s office. There’s a plant wall over the receptionist’s desk. There’s a kitchen in the waiting area, stocked with kombucha, coconut yogurt, and snacks like lotus seed puffs and turmeric plant bites. There are comfy couches and a long table that makes the lounge seem more like a cool Brooklyn cafe or a coworking space than a place where you’d get a vaccination.

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This space, located on the second floor of a Fifth Avenue address, isn’t just a trendy spot for wellness obsessives–though it certainly looks the part. The clinic was designed by architect Alda Ly and interior designers Hilko Designs, and it’s conceptualized to provide a healthy way of life for the company’s members from the moment they walk in the door. Ly and Parsley’s head of design Day Jimenez worked together to incorporate biophilia, a design approach that uses natural elements to improve mental and physical wellbeing, into the office, from the meditation nook to the rooms where patients see their primary care doctor.

[Photo: Reid Rolls/courtesy Parsley Health]
Parsley views design as a key factor that contributes to patients’ health. Doctor Robin Berzin founded the company in 2015 because she saw a flaw in the American medical system, which primarily focuses on prescriptions and procedures, not preventative care. About 90% of diseases are related to social determinants–your environment and your behavior. At Parsley, Berzin’s team of traditionally trained doctors work with members, who pay a subscription fee of $150 per month, to understand what is going on in their lives that might be impacting their health. In this sense, Parsley is not alone. It is one of a group of startups trying to redesign primary care for people who are displeased with the alarming state of health care in the United States (and can afford their membership model, which isn’t covered by insurance). By designing its first space according to biophilic design principles, Parsley is hoping to ease patients’ nerves and show them that going to the doctor doesn’t have to be a negative experience.

Previously, Parsley had small clinics located inside of three WeWork locations. This New York clinic is Parsley’s first standalone space, with plans for a Los Angeles clinic in the works. Given the company’s focus on how your environment impacts your body, Berzin felt it was important to design a space that would translate Parsley’s philosophy into practice. “We wanted to create comfort, create intimacy, create healing, and help empower people to engage in their health from the moment they walk in the door,” Berzin says.

[Photo: Reid Rolls/courtesy Parsley Health]
Biophilic design is the idea that incorporating natural elements will make people feel more comfortable in spaces. The design philosophy is codified into 14 specific “patterns,” each of which has been scientifically shown to contribute to physical and mental wellbeing. These patterns include visual cues of the natural world–like plants–as well as more subtle design features, like sensory stimuli that remind you of the natural world, shifting light that echoes the path of the sun, and the use of natural materials. References to nature within a space have been shown to lower heart rate and blood pressure, as well as engender a sense of calm and tranquility.

Biophilic design is especially notable in the waiting lounge. There are plants sprinkled in different corners of the space; a custom-made essential oil blend of lemon, basil, and Cedarwood Virginiana that has mild antiseptic properties and is supposed to promote immunity and a feeling of calm; and a meditation nook that helps patients connect with their breath.

Floor-to-ceiling windows flood the space with natural light, which Ly preserved by keeping the lounge one large room as opposed to dividing it up into smaller spaces. The team opted for LED bulbs over fluorescent lights wherever possible because fluorescent lights have a slight flicker that’s irritating to the nervous system and can cause headaches.

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The lounge also has an overwhelming amount of wood: wood floors, wood chairs, wood shelving–all of which provide a tangible material connection to the natural world. Subtle though it may be, it can translates into real health benefits: According to one 2005 study, the use of natural materials like wood in any kind of interior environment can actually decrease diastolic blood pressure. “All of the materials and the textures we were looking at have this kind of scientifically proven calming effect on the body,” says Jimenez.

The designers additionally chose materials that have varied patterns and textures, adhering to another principle of biophilic design. For instance, the kitchen’s neutral, white countertop is made from a sustainable material called Caesarstone that has swirling patterns hidden within it when you look closer, evoking the movement of clouds across the sky.

[Photo: Reid Rolls/courtesy Parsley Health]

The most powerful biophilic design move isn’t in the lounge or even in the patient rooms, but in the hallway that connects them. When you’re standing at the entrance of the hallway, a series of mouldings spaced down the hall frame a small tree that’s been suspended in a circle of light at its end. Designed by Parsley and the landscape artist Andrew Zientek, the installation is attuned to the time of day and the season, subtly shifting in hue and intensity as the sun moves across the sky. It’d be right at home in a high-end spa, but patients encounter it just before they walk into a room with their doctor. Compared to the drab hallways in most doctor’s offices, the rhythmic architecture of the hallway paired with the illuminated tree are supposed to provide a sense of calm to patients who might be anxious heading into an appointment.

This taps into the biophilic design principle of “prospect,” in which spaces that include a long, unimpeded view of nature are tied to reduced stress, improved comfort, and a greater perception of safety. “You come from this very alive space [in the lounge] to a very focused and intentional pure moment,” says Jimenez. “It’s almost like a rite of passage.”

Even the exam rooms–typically the most antiseptic place in a doctor’s office, out of necessity–evoke warmth, with calming paint and fabrics.

By emphasizing natural elements and their impact on patients, Parsley’s clinic is meant to suggest that your environment can shift the way you feel, both physically and mentally–and maybe even make the doctor’s office feel like a safe place.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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