With a health care system serving 40,000 Native Americans annually, the Chickasaw Nation, headquartered in the central Oklahoma town of Ada, sees medicine differently than the rest of the United States. The semi-autonomous tribal group has for decades committed itself to universal, patient-centered care, a quest that culminated in July with the dedication of a $145 million facility that embodies both traditional Chickasaw values and humane hospital design.
Nearly triple the size of the nation’s previous facility, the 360,000-square-foot Chickasaw Nation Medical Center includes a 72-bed hospital and emergency department, along with spaces for diabetes care, a dental clinic, women’s health, and other services. Drawing on an extensive healthcare portfolio, Austin-based PageSoutherlandPage assembled this program within the context of Chickasaw attitudes about medicine and nature, which dovetailed with the firm’s approach.
“We met with elders and tribal leaders and people who really knew their culture, to help them find a vehicle for how that could come to fruition in a building,” said firm principal Lawrence Speck. “We found incredibly fertile ground.”
Touched by the Chickasaw reverence for the natural world, the architects took advantage of the center’s site, a 230-acre swath surrounded by pecan and live oak trees, six of which frame the new building. In patient rooms, walls are canted so that beds face exterior views, with daylight drawn in from ceilings extended to 12-foot heights near the windows. Visual access to the outdoors, Speck notes, is a classic principal of evidence-based design, which draws on environmental psychology, neuroscience, and other fields to show how the physical environment can improve patient welfare.
At the heart of the building is the “town center,” featuring a lobby, waiting areas, exhibits, and a cafe. Accented by warm ipe wood and painted MDF panels, the space is seen as a civic venue. “When someone is sick, they consider it a community responsibility to heal that person, not just a family responsibility,” Speck explained. Since patients receive many more visitors than is typical in an urban environment, designers also created larger patient rooms, with reorganized layouts to accommodate extended family.
Throughout, the building draws on tribal colors and weavings, including a rainscreen made of thin aluminum panels woven like a Native American fabric. “The overall design creates an environment conducive to healing,” Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby wrote AN in an email. “Because Chickasaw culture is integrated into the medical center in everything from the design of the floor tiles to the placement of windows, patients feel very comfortable.”
As Speck sees it, the building succeeds through a simple sense of permeability all too rare in hermetic wards. “It’s bizarre to me that in so many health care environments, it’s hard to find a cup of coffee,” he said. “In this one, you’re easy in, easy out.”