The aftereffects of the pandemic will be felt by many for a long time. For the healthcare industry, it will leave a lasting physical mark. Beyond accelerating the use of technology and digital advancements, healthcare spaces themselves are going to be built and used differently as a measure for future preparedness.

The demand for new healthcare property is steady and as many new projects are breaking ground, it’s crucial to understand the design considerations that should be made through the lens of the pandemic. New design concepts and strategies should reexamine the effectiveness of traditional healthcare facility layouts – everything from the size of waiting rooms to ventilation systems.

For both new and existing healthcare facilities, design elements including PPE storage, social distancing areas and overflow flexibility will be prioritized. Applying these key findings to promote infection control will permanently change the physical standard of our hospitals and clinics.

The Value of Fresh Air

Air quality was a large concern for inpatient health centers during the pandemic. This includes both the ability to push nonviral air through the facility’s ventilation systems as well as providing outdoor spaces.

Improving indoor airflow patterns is a critical infection control component many healthcare facilities are examining and updating due to the pandemic. This includes integrating advanced filtration systems and increased air handling units (AHUs) to prevent airborne transmission. Additionally, balancing HVAC systems and tracking the airflow within a lab or operating room ensures that potentially contaminated air is drawn away from the staff to minimize risk of infection.

Externally, incorporating outdoor spaces like rooftop terraces, courtyards and open-air corridors not only mitigates viral spread but also can improve wayfinding and allow for social-distanced gathering for visitors and staff. We expect to see more and more healthcare campuses prioritizing green space and the premium that comes with fresh air.

Looking ahead, healthcare facilities are going to be designed and renovated around their ability to provide safe, breathable air inside and out.

Flexibility for Surge and Isolation

Hospitals are looking for ways to future-proof against the bed shortages that overwhelmed so many during the pandemic.

Rather than adding an unnecessary number in rooms for a “just-in-case” scenario, healthcare facilities planners are finding design solutions that allow them the flexibility to convert rooms from single to double occupancy. Design plans are shifting to extreme exposure prevention, which includes the ability to isolate rooms or entire wings by constructing more anterooms, building a “fever entrance” for infected persons and more.

Healthcare Design Magazine predicts that “Going forward, hospitals will need groups of rooms and entire units and wings that can be cut off from the rest of the hospital in a pandemic. These units will need easy ways to get patients in from the ER, as well as trash out, without going through the entire hospital.”

Utilizing prefabricated modular construction is another solution that hospitals are exploring, as it’s a low-cost option that delivers the spatial flexibility needed to accommodate surge scenarios.

Having a fluid, responsive layout will be key for minimizing exposure and preventing shortages amidst an influx of patients.

Hybrid Virtual Model

Telehealth platforms allowed healthcare providers to treat patients while remaining safe throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. There are a variety of benefits to the virtual care model that will carry over into how our healthcare facilities are designed moving forward.

Many hospitals and clinics will continue to have patients sign in virtually for in-person appointments just like they would for a telehealth appointment and, as a result, we will see the size of waiting rooms shrink. Instead, many facilities will provide external entrances to individual exam rooms, reducing potential exposure in lobbies and hallways.

It’s likely that healthcare organizations will move forward with “a mixed, distributed model consisting of central headquarters workspaces with dispersed hubs and centers coupled with remote, virtual work. This model may allow for easier staff and patient access, flexible working and organizational resiliency,” (Design Museum).

What this Means for New and Existing Facilities

Existing healthcare facilities can examine current infrastructure to determine areas where cross-contamination or transmission can be mitigated. This includes upgrading HVAC systems, providing glass and plexiglass separators, integrating smart furniture, using biocidal surface materials and integrating touchless technology for doors, sinks, elevators and more.

New construction of medical offices as well as brick-and-mortar clinics and high-profile healthcare facilities is expected to surge in 2021. Building these new projects with the expertise of infection control specialists and engineers will save costs on renovations down the road and ensure they are safeguarded for the future.