The prospect of a global pandemic in the 21st Century has long been predicted; however, the reality of acclimating/adjusting to life in the face of a health emergency is a disruptive force of uncertainty that none of us were ready for.
Despite the best efforts of our health and care providers to rapidly adapt to the challenging circumstances of 2020, a critical lack of national policy planning, investment and preparedness for such an event has made dealing with the pandemic even more arduous for those across the sector.
Warnings from experts suggest that we are likely to be living with the COVID-19 virus for many years to come. So, as we look to the future of health and care buildings, could adaptable spaces that flex to changing clinical needs be the solution to managing uncertainty?
Beyond temporary solutions
Semi-permanent facilities like mobile cabins have played a role not only throughout the pandemic, as assessment areas or rest bays for staff, but as ongoing solutions to space and capacity issues in hospitals and healthcare facilities. Likewise, the Nightingale field hospitals have provided temporary solutions to an emergency situation, and with an extra £3bn allocated to the NHS to keep the spaces operating until March 2021, they will boost capacity in the health service while also enabling routine treatments and procedures to continue.
At the height of the pandemic, clinical spaces within hospitals were also repurposed and 8,000 beds from the independent hospital sector were acquired by NHSE; all of which comes at huge expense and requires extensive planning and precious NHS resources. In the shadow of an anticipated winter crisis, the capacity challenge is ongoing, as hospitals tackle the backlog of appointments and treatments postponed by the pandemic.
While all of these solutions are short-term fixes to an ever-changing healthcare environment, they aren’t addressing the long-term needs of health and care spaces. They aren’t sustainable spaces that can flex to the seasonal demands and evolving levels of need. Spaces designed with the capacity to keep pace with rapid changes to technology and delivery models; spaces that ensure both efficiency and value for money.
Adaptable spaces for an adapting sector
The efficient use of space in so many hospitals is limited not just by the existing footprints of buildings, but also by the bespoke design of so many clinical facilities. A large proportion of which are designed for a specific high-specification function or a particular way of working.
But what if more spaces could cover a broader range of uses? What if a greater number of hospital rooms could be used with more efficiency, increasing the capacity of the building without expanding its footprint?
If every room is built to the highest specification and used only for that purpose, the likelihood is that a building needs more rooms, of varying sizes, that are used less frequently. But if the pandemic has taught us something, it’s that the ability to flex both your operations and your spaces rapidly and efficiently is crucial to managing uncertainty.
Will Bilbrough, Development Director at Prime, explains why greater use of proportionality and standardisation in the design and development of future healthcare spaces could be the key to future resilience in the NHS:
“Rooms that can be used for the widest range of services and can be quickly transformed offer hospitals the greatest level of adaptability, because the functionality of the room isn’t limited.”
Will argues that it’s not about reducing the level of care, but being able to flex how you operate, so that hospitals can expand and contract depending on the level of need.
“It’s not about tearing-up the rule book; but going forward, as we bring people on the design and development journey, we can avoid going down ever-narrower paths. Instead, by working with partners to establish how rooms are used, we can create a larger proportion of multi-use spaces that can be used more efficiently.”
While the future outcome of the pandemic is still unknown, what we can always be certain of is a change. The challenges faced by the NHS from a continually evolving political, financial and health landscape, mean that adaptability and resilience are essential traits for both its people and buildings. From infrastructure to interiors, Prime can help Trusts to transform their spaces and develop their estates with greater adaptability and efficiency of use for the unknown challenges ahead.