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From nursing to architecture: How one SoN Alumna put her BSN to work in redesigning healthcare


Date: November 20, 2012
Media Contact: Ashley Wiggin,, 206-221-2456

By Sumalee Oakley

On November 9th, Teri Oelrich, RN, ’84 BSN, MBA, gave a brown bag presentation to architecture and health sciences students about her unusual career trajectory which eventually led to her starting a successful Portland-based healthcare design firm. After she finished her BSN degree, Oelrich gained more than nursing experience while working in every department within Swedish Medical Center. During her time in the pediatric ICU, Oelrich began envisioning more effective ways to plan and organize space in order to influence the environment in which patients “receive care and caregivers give care.”

Teri Oelrich HeadshotTeri Oelrich HeadshotSeeking to broaden her professional background, Oelrich entered an MBA program at Syracuse University and earned her MBA in Statistics in 1989. Her interest in healthcare and consulting converged when she answered an advertisement in the consulting division at NBBJ, the global architecture, planning, and design firm. One of her first projects was to “size” Seattle Children’s Hospital, and since then, Oelrich has helped plan and design more than seventy hospitals. As she explained, the challenge of healthcare design is to size hospital square footage and staff space for twenty years into the future. This boils down to projecting how changing demographics, population shifts, and cultural norms may impact the hospital space.

Although she loved working with NBBJ, Oelrich decided she wanted to spend more time with her family and so launched her own healthcare consulting firm, Nightingales Healthcare Consulting.  Oelrich noted that the firm’s name pays homage to Florence Nightingale, who worked with an architect using evidence-based design to construct a hospital with ideal treatment and healing conditions. Oelrich collaborates with architects, engineers, hospitals, and financial managers on designing everything from emergency rooms and individual units to grand master plans. She explained to her audience that healthcare design differs from other types of types of design in which, by convention, “form follows function.” In healthcare design, “form follows function follows workload”—that is, the workload of the nursing and medical staff. She pointed out that given a poorly-designed floor plan, nurses will find a way to “control the space” by improvising, for instance, more centrally-located nursing stations. Robust healthcare design facilitates rather than hinders the work of nurses. Likewise, good healthcare design takes into account the patient experience, which means imagining the spatial needs of their families and caregivers. Having witnessed so many caregivers struggle to figure out where to place themselves, Oelrich designed hospital rooms that subtly demarcate zones easily recognizable to caregivers as their own spot. A study confirmed Oelrich’s belief that thoughtful design makes economic sense as well: the average length of stay (ALOS) for patients housed in such rooms was shorter and compensated the initial expense of the new building.

Here at the School of Nursing, Oelrich made an impact on the space of learning when she gave a generous gift to help purchase the mannequins and other equipment that provide a simulated healthcare environment for students. She continues to advocate for the profession and practice of nursing as well as expand the horizons of what a nursing background can accomplish. Last but not least, as a proud UW SoN alumna she roots for the Huskies in Oregon where she now lives, but notes that it is by no means an easy task to be a Husky in a sea of Ducks!

The University of Washington School of Nursing is consistently a top-rated nursing school, according to U.S. News & World Report. Ranked No. 2 in research funding from the National Institutes of Health in 2011, the UW School of Nursing is a national and international leader in improving the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities. The school addresses society’s most pressing challenges in health care through innovative teaching, award winning research and community service. For more information, visit