The Future of Healthcare Design (Part 2)

Technology will improve the in-person experience

In Part 2 of this three-part series, healthcare administrators and designers from around the U.S. share their views on how hospitals are changing to meet the needs of patients and medical professionals.

Although many patients will enjoy expanded opportunities for remote and off-site healthcare in the future, the “sickest of the sick” will still seek care at major brick-and-mortar facilities. They’ll get surgeries that are unavailable at ambulatory centers, procedures that can’t be done at offices, and experimental treatments that must be delivered in highly controlled environments.

“The hospital will still be the hospital,” says Chris Nicholas, CEO of Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, Nevada. “Especially large tertiary hospitals like ours: I see them becoming large intensive care units.”

Teaching hospitals will also continue to play a vital role in in-person healthcare by educating the next generation of practitioners and providing resources for medical research. “There will always be a need for the large academic medical centers,” says Brian Crimmins, the recently retired vice president for facilities planning at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “I think they’ll focus more on the teaching and research aspects, as well as cutting-edge new therapies.”

Centering patients and families

Hospitals are likely to use technology to provide more personalized, streamlined experiences for patients and their caregivers. For instance, augmented reality could help people find their way around complex corridors. Frictionless processes, like online scheduling and app-based check-in, can save time for all involved.

Patient rooms will change, too. “We’re going to start seeing rooms that have more ambient intelligence,” says Eric Eskioglu, MD, MBA. He predicts that screens on patient room walls will one day be replaced by immersive technology that transports patients into a calming virtual environment to aid in prep and recovery.

Listen to Jill Sullivan discuss how room design affects patients and their families.

Designing flexible spaces

Hospitals are expensive to build and retrofit, so it’s important to design them right from the start to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances.

As the proportion of sicker hospital inpatients continues to grow in the future, entire wings or floors will need to be converted from low acuity, or non-urgent, care provision to critical care.

Forward-looking design teams can build that versatility into patient rooms right from the start, says Marvina Williams, a former emergency department nurse who is now a senior medical planner. “Acuity-adaptable patient rooms, or universal rooms, allow hospitals to handle sudden surges or to change incrementally over time as more low-acuity patients are cared for off-site,” she says. “There’s a greater up-front cost to outfitting these rooms, but retrofits end up being even more expensive and hospitals will need that critical care space in the future.”

“We’re finding that our clients need flexible lab space beyond anything we’ve done before. They need hyper-flexibility and modularity.”
Ashley Dias, architect and healthcare strategist at Perkins&Will

Labs will need to be more flexible, as well. The current trend toward off-site diagnostics (like at-home COVID tests and pop-up testing labs) is likely to continue, says architect and healthcare strategist Ashley Dias, reducing the need for in-house diagnostic labs. At the same time, precision medicine, also known as personalized medicine, is a growing field that tailors treatments to a person’s genetics and requires more lab space at hospitals. “We’re finding that our clients need flexible lab space beyond anything we’ve done before,” Dias says. “They need hyper-flexibility and modularity.”

The need for flexibility is even extending into surgical suites. “Operating rooms are now universal,” Crimmins says. “They could be a room for a cardiology procedure one week and a gall bladder the next. We won’t have different areas where these surgical procedures are being done. They’ll be centralized.” This eliminates the need to move patients around the building and improves the flow for anesthesiologists, radiologists, and other staff.

Improving back-of-house logistics

When people think of hospitals, they typically picture emergency departments, in-patient rooms, or operating rooms. They rarely consider everything that happens behind the scenes to ensure that care providers have the data, supplies, and equipment they need.

“If you look at any nurse’s workflow, about 50% of the time is spent on data entry,” Eskioglu says. “Twenty-five percent is what we call ‘hunting and gathering’; that’s hunting equipment, gathering trays, and bringing medicines. And then if they’re lucky, they’ll spend 25% of their time actually taking care of patients. It’s no wonder they’re burned out.”

Eskioglu says technology has the potential to help improve morale by eliminating crucial but lower-level tasks through AI-powered data entry and record scanning, tracking technology for supplies and equipment, and predictive analyses for ordering and routing supplies. This will reduce physicians’ and nurses’ cognitive burden, thereby allowing them to focus on meaningful work with time for empathy.

Technology has the potential to help improve morale by eliminating crucial but lower-level tasks.

Crimmins says hospitals are implementing Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) systems to track equipment, and AI systems that identify patterns in supply and equipment usage can also improve efficiency. “We don’t have the luxury of a lot of storage areas, so these supplies and equipment are constantly moving. AI points things out that don’t necessarily come to mind when you’re in it every day. But you can study the analytics and look at the models and develop new ways of working.”

Up next:

How can hospitals of the future support health—including environmental health—on a broader scale?

Check out Part 3

And in case you missed it, Part 1 discusses remote care.