As the pandemic took hold in early 2020, many hospitals were overwhelmed with too many patients and not enough beds. In the hardest hit areas, some hospitals were forced to place beds in hallways, makeshift rooms, and even storage closets.
The situation revealed much about the capacity constraints and other challenges of aging healthcare facilities. Even some newer facilities struggled with the influx of patients. Many of those who were able to accommodate coronavirus patients had to cancel most elective procedures in exchange, and other lifesaving treatments were sometimes delayed as well.
Hospital administrators and planners are eagerly seeking ways to adapt their facilities so they never face such dilemmas again. Whether looking to renovate a healthcare facility or build a new one, it’s important to consider how to approach long-term hospital planning, design, and construction goals.
1. Converting Administrative Space to Clinical Care
Even though there was increased demand for frontline healthcare workers during the pandemic, many administrative workers were sent home to work remotely. In general, it’s estimated that one-quarter of the U.S. workforce can work remotely between three and five days a week without affecting productivity. Among health professionals like doctors, nurses, and practitioners, however, that potential drops to just 11% due to the clinical nature of their work.
But there are many administrative professionals who work behind the scenes whose responsibilities are conducive to working remotely. Many of their offices are located in the same buildings as their inpatient facilities — offices that sat empty during the pandemic. An increase in office vacancies might be viewed as a problem in typical commercial settings. In hospitals, however, it can be seen as an opportunity for increased capacity and revenue.
Imagine converting a portion of the building that was originally designed as offices into clinical spaces, testing facilities, surgical units, or patient rooms. The potential for increased patient care and clinical capacity is significant.
To accomplish this requires a thorough assessment from a design firm and construction company that specialize in healthcare facilities. Not only can they ensure that space is maximized and that all areas of the facility adhere to strict regulatory standards, they’ll also help to minimize disruption and revenue loss during construction.
But what about workers who still need to come into the office at times? Rather than private offices, unassigned workstations that are “checked out” each time an employee comes in are an ideal solution. These hybrid work spaces can be equipped with all the productivity tools, technology, and accessories necessary. Herman Miller, a leading commercial furnishings company, helped one organization increase its capacity by 73% by implementing fewer assigned individual work areas and more shared individual and group spaces. Collaboration areas for meetings or group projects also need to be part of the mix.
2. Adaptive Furnishings & Finishes
The pandemic brought a renewed interest in the role of furnishings. In particular, more attention is being paid to surfaces, upholstery, laminate finishes, and more. They need to be easily sanitized and able to stand up to the stronger cleaning agents used in hospital settings.
The traditional furniture layout in waiting rooms consisted of jamming as much row seating in as possible. Now, we’re seeing several different types of seating which not only are conducive to social distancing, they’re more functional, too.
Examples might include chairs with higher backs and those to accommodate bariatric patients. Screens may be used to create nooks with a couple chairs or benches. The result is pleasing from a design perspective and creates natural social distancing — a much better solution than simply pulling every third chair from a row.
Courtesy of Herman Miller
More attention is also being paid to ICU waiting rooms to provide natural barriers with more privacy for those faced with highly emotional situations. Small workstations are also being provided for loved ones who want to stay near yet work remotely, or areas for children to play games to help them stay occupied.
3. Designing Flexibility into New Hospital Construction
Those planning a new hospital or healthcare facility can’t rely on hospital designs and functions of the past. They need to address potential shifts in the industry holistically by creating flexible and adaptive environments.
In anticipation of future changes, hospitals are now being built using demountable walls and modular casework. Designers and architects even consider where they’ll put utilities to make sure they can be adapted down the road without major demolition. A patient room today could be an administrative office in the future, and vice versa. Flexibility is the key.
Agile furnishings play an important role in helping to make this type of flexibility a reality while accommodating growth. People can experiment with a space to make it work for them and adjust it on their own when their needs change (without needing to change the architecture).
Designers also need to look at inventory controls and onsite storage facilities for medical supplies, PPE, linens, and other items, as well as the equipment used to get it to a patient’s bedside.
4. Bringing Healthcare to the People
Even though tele-medicine was on the rise prior to COVID-19, the pandemic likely accelerated its adoption by 5-7 years. Some larger employers are investing in tele-medicine for their workforces and perceive it as a perk. Not surprisingly, the rise of tele-medicine is also influencing hospital design, with some facilities being built to solely centralize this service.
Rather than build new, some health systems are renovating old retail buildings that have sat vacant for years. There is also a rise in the number of walk-in clinics located inside major retail chains or malls, and some healthcare systems even host vaccine clinics and provide other services at events like county fairs and farmers markets. These initiatives are helping to bring care closer to the population, resulting in easier access for patients and a smaller investment for the healthcare provider.
Despite the undeniable tragedy seen since early 2020, a positive is that it has forced the healthcare system to think outside the box. They’re developing unique ways to bring healthcare to the people and improving their facilities in ways that can serve communities for many years to come, even in the midst of uncertainty.
About the guest author: Ryan Petska is the owner of The Petska Group. They are an independent manufacturer’s rep organization that has been focused on the Healthcare Industry for over 20 years. He works with Health Systems, A&D firms, Consultants, Trade Partners and Distributors across the nation to support new construction and renovation projects. Ryan brings a focus on Lean concepts and adaptive solutions to the interior built environment.