Priorities in healthcare can shift instantly, as the world has seen during the coronavirus pandemic. How can healthcare providers prepare their facilities for the inevitable change that is coming in weeks, years or decades? Future-proofing projects is key to creating facilities that maximize adaptability and flexibility.
Even before the pandemic, the industry was in the midst of transformation. Now, care providers make money by keeping patients out of hospital beds, not in hospital beds, and administrators must adapt to this new reality. Providers are facing a dramatic move toward virtual visits and telemedicine, with Medicaid and Medicare adjusting reimbursement policies to include telehealth and remote access. Telemedicine interactions will top one billion in the United States this year, according to research and consulting firm Forrester. The nature of healthcare has shifted to a focus on individualized care.
For healthcare providers, it is essential to develop strategies for creating facilities that are adaptable and resilient to change. Opportunities exist to develop facilities that will work more efficiently and last longer. A few core principles can guide the process.
Plan For Future Need
Early in the planning process, it’s helpful to envision a future need. Maybe it is an additional shelled space for a specialized piece of equipment or a full floor for additional beds for alternative patient care. Consider how the design creates flexibility. One way to approach the issue is to make expansion more seamless. Instead of designing a hospital in a restrictive grid with multiple columns, an open, spokes-style plan might allow outward expansion with minimal extra construction.
Lessons From the Pandemic
The pandemic has highlighted a greater need for infection control, telemedicine and social distancing. To keep patients from infecting one another, new facilities should include more exam rooms and fewer waiting rooms. Low-slung buildings of two or three stories will displace towers, as healthcare systems focus on outpatient services.
The pandemic has highlighted the need for speedy conversions. You may have a low-acuity facility that suddenly needs to take COVID-19 patients who need more oxygen, more power and ventilators, and to move quickly, the facility must have adaptability built in.
Modular systems are one solution. They provide a simple way to expand flexibility while lowering costs and speeding the construction process. Modular ceiling systems with specialized medical gas and air-conditioning units can be easily swapped as needs change for treatment rooms and ICUs. Modular systems can also be used for restrooms, storage rooms and exam rooms. Quality is high, and it makes sense to use it in highly-sensitive healthcare facilities and spaces.
Reimagine Administrative Spaces
It is time for staff workspaces to be upgraded. Many ideas of the efficient corporate workplace can help create work environments that spur collaboration and innovation among healthcare professionals. Spaces will need to be flexible.
Offices are being replaced by co-labs and “team care areas.” New designs will improve workflow and help to attract and retain top professionals. There are also real advantages if facilities can shift to more beds and less administrative.
Use Research to Inform Design
Ongoing research into the needs and expectations of patients and medical professionals is critical to creating facilities that can adapt to what will happen in the healthcare industry in the next 10, 20 and even 50 years.
Maximize Outdoor Connections
Links to the outside world will become increasingly important in the years ahead. Garden areas, respite zones, outdoor consultation spaces and open-air waiting areas will expand the usable space of a facility and create value. Outdoor spaces create a meaningful benefit for patients and staff while contributing to the overall wellness of everyone involved. They should be used in the program space rather than viewed as an afterthought.
Embrace the Environment
A facility filled with natural light and fresh air is more efficient and sustainable, and can improve the health of the people who use it. A close focus on building orientation and passive systems allows healthcare facilities to save money on power, achieve green certification and limit the impact of future energy crises.
Environmental stewardship provides many benefits. Sustainable materials often require less maintenance and will remain available for reuse. The expense of constructing a facility makes up only about 10% of its life-cycle cost. Sustainable design helps lower operational costs, an important part of future-proofing.
Establish the Brand
As roles shift, facilities will increasingly represent the provider’s brand and mission. A welcoming environment with a seamless, touch-free registration process will help define the relationship with the client over many years.
The branding experience is very much a part of the mix of healthcare design. From the moment someone enters a building, it speaks to them about the provider’s values and how they are going to experience the whole process.
Space once used as a waiting room will need to play many roles in the life cycle of a facility. Connections to nature, materials, daylight and wayfinding can help bring the brand to life and extend the facility’s effectiveness.
More Flexible Patient Rooms
Healthcare facilities are just beginning the move to more acuity-adaptable rooms, allowing them to use a room for patients regardless of how ill they are. Codes are changing to reflect this new reality.
Universal patient beds will help facilities nimbly shift with market needs, expanding care centers’ lives. By having the flexibility to make that room an ICU or a medical/surgery unit, the hospital may not need to build a new wing to accommodate different uses in the future.
Future healthcare design must acknowledge fundamental changes in facilities’ functional requirements. We must build facilities that can adjust to new needs and future crises, since healthcare is certain to face both.
Muhsin Lihony is director of healthcare, and Greg Schneekluth is regional managing director at LPA Design Studios. An integrated design firm with six locations in California and Texas, LPA’s team includes more than 400 in-house architects, master planners, engineers, interior designers, landscape architects and research analysts, working across a wide array of sectors.