How a Nashville designer turned hospitals on to hospitality

When Rebecca Donner walks into a hospital she’s not just looking for the help desk or nearest nurse.

“The color and how it feels, the finishes. Do I feel welcomed? Do I not feel welcomed? Does this feel high-tech?” Donner said. “[People] decide if this is a good place or bad place immediately.”

As founder and principal of Inner Design Studio, an interior design firm focused on health care, it’s Donner’s job to make hospitals, emergency rooms, senior-living homes and behavioral health facilities feel welcoming.

Over the past 25 years, her firm has designed more than 870 projects across the country for clients such as HCA Healthcare Inc., Community Health Systems Inc., LifePoint Health and AmSurg Corp.

Donner was a designer at Hue Inc. when she began working in health care and used her experience in commercial design to influence her hospital work.

In 1993, health care design was more focused on fire and safety codes than patient experience or comfort, Donner said.

“I thought it could look nicer; at the time everything was code-driven and nobody kind of thought outside of the code. I started to play with the idea of hospitality [industry] codes [in health care],” Donner said. “I started to explore that and found that there was a lot of interest.”

At 27, Donner launched Inner Design Studio with that idea, and began attending national hospitality design shows to get inspiration for her health care projects. 

She said she slowly began incorporating nicer lamps, fancier art and chairs with beautiful patterns (but made of vinyl, so they were scrubbable) into her designs — making hospital waiting rooms feel more like hotel lobbies.

Her first opportunity to fully engage her vision was at the HCA-owned TriStar StoneCrest Medical Center in Smyrna, Donner said. Inner Design covered columns with wood and used more expensive stones throughout the facility.

“We really tried to get them to envision a more grand entrance instead of the usual thing,” Donner said.

Not doing the usual thing, however, sometimes requires creativity in order to do the safe thing.

Hospitals are constantly cleaning furniture and fixtures with bleach solutions that limit the spread of germs but also take a toll on fabrics. To combat that, Inner Design Studio has turned to fabrics that incorporate metals that don’t allow bacteria to grow, like copper and silver. 

Last year, Inner Design Studio, which has an all-female staff of 13, completed 108 projects with more than $2 million in revenue. 

Donner said the additional investments are worth it for care providers, who are facing increased competition in the industry. 

The patient experience is essential in attracting everything from surgeries to expectant mothers (Inner Design Studio recently renovated Saint Thomas Midtown’s labor department with Nashville Predators and Tennessee Titans themes) and can affect Medicare reimbursement rates, Donner said.

“When you think about the 1970s and 1980s, there was the hospital in town, and now when you go into some of these markets you have so many choices,” Donner said. “So everybody has had to figure out how to take care of the patient and their families. We’re really trying to make it so that you’re comfortable to stay in a hospital with your loved one.”

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