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Health in All Design: Dr. Andrew Ibrahim on the Intersection of Architecture and Health

The chief medical officer for HOK’s Healthcare practice was a guest on Dr. Reed Omary’s “Innovation Activists: Designing Healthcare’s Future” podcast.

As a surgeon and researcher, Dr. Ibrahim has spent the past decade studying medicine, health policy and design. As the first-ever chief medical officer for HOK’s Healthcare practice, he has worked to help the firm’s planning and design teams improve patient outcomes and address society’s most urgent health challenges.

Excerpted from Dr. Omary’s Innovation Activists podcast:

Dr. Ibrahim on the similarities between healthcare and architecture:

“I was drawn to surgery early in medical school because it’s very tangible and concrete. At the end of the day, you can physically see something that you changed. And there are long-term benefits or consequences that you are responsible for. I was drawn to that and to the personalities who were willing to take on that responsibility. … That’s the same thing that excites me about architecture. Even a small design decision can have enormous consequences for buildings that may be around for decades or hundreds of years.”

The historic role of architects in promoting health:

“In the first documented canons of architecture dating back to Ancient Rome, Marcus Vitruvius explicitly says that a core competency of being an architect is to understand medicine and health so you can know whether a building will have a positive health impact on the people who occupy that space.”

“Our recent work at the AIA has largely been about building more common ground between architects and clinicians. Part of it has been understanding more of our history and realizing that population health is not that foreign to architects. It’s actually in our history and, with a little different training, there’s an opportunity to put architects in the middle again.”

How urban planners can contribute to a community’s health:

“For the last two years, JAMA [the Journal of the American Medical Association] has published multiple papers on city walkability. People have measured neighborhood walkability scores across Ontario and then measured rates of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Sure enough, they found that if you live in a more walkable neighborhood then over time that is associated with lower rates of all three. … This is a signal that insurers are going to pay much more attention to the built environment.”

Making health a priority from the beginning of the design process:

“At HOK we have launched an initiative called ‘Health in All Design.’ The idea is that everything we design and build can influence health if we consider it from the start. For example, it’s hard to go back after building a stadium and then decide to use it on non-game days as a public space for health intervention. That’s challenging and expensive. But if you plan for that before a building is ever built, small modifications can be made to make a lot of that building accessible and multipurpose. And it may not change the cost of the building that much. The key is to get the message out much earlier and include health as a priority upfront in the design process.”

Changing how we prepare the next generation of architectural and medical professionals:

“We should be broader in how we mentor our next generation of students and young professionals. Our tradition has been that we need the super subspecialist who is really good at one or two things. That’s good and we still need people to do that. We also need a different kind of mentee who is willing to work in different areas and integrate ideas that haven’t been done before. … Mentors have a huge responsibility to try to encourage their mentees to be more creative.”

A call to action:

“Think about all the spaces you occupy during the day: all the things you walk by, all the people you pass. Could anything be designed differently to promote health as a priority? If you think like that for just for a day, it gets overwhelming. You realize there are dozens or maybe hundreds of spaces you’ll encounter that could be used differently to facilitate better health.”

Listen to the entire Innovation Activists podcast.

Earlier this year, Dr. Ibrahim spoke about incorporating health into all design and architecture as part of the “Thinking Out Loud” speaker series hosted by HOK’s London studio.

Follow Dr. Ibrahim on Twitter at @AndrewMIbrahim and at Also visit

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