June 17, 2024
Linaea Floden

Linaea Floden Headshot credit: Ryan Companies

With the evolution of healthcare procedures and processes, hospitals and patient care facilities are increasingly finding value in adapting the design of interior spaces to best meet the changing needs of patient populations and providers.

The advancements in robotic and less invasive surgical procedures and the shifting popularity of telehealth have necessitated greater flexibility in healthcare design, in addition to the simple fact that we don’t have a crystal ball to show what the future may hold.

As healthcare providers saw during the pandemic, adapting to changing procedures and treatment methods was crucial in caring for patients and keeping staff safe during an unprecedented time. That adaptation now demands that the design of new healthcare facilities deliver the power of plasticity to better align with shifting needs.

While the cost of flexibility could be significant, particularly in rural regions where public funding is more limited, the entry fee is an investment toward future savings. When large-scale renovations aren’t required because the facility is already future-proofed, healthcare systems are able to redirect funds to other areas, such as technology and equipment advancements, innovating services or expanding footprints into new regions.

By designing with intention alongside architects who understand how to best implement adaptable solutions, hospitals will be better equipped to respond to changing needs in healthcare environments and enhance the vital role they play as long-term fixtures of the communities they serve.

Here are four design strategies hospitals should consider to ensure future flexibility in healthcare environments:

Space versatility

Hospitals are recognizing the benefit of being able to quickly transform spaces from one use to another—whether to manage swells in patient volume or seamlessly transition to varying forms of treatment—and are increasingly deploying innovative solutions to maximize space usage and functionality within rooms.

One key technique is incorporating modular furniture systems that allow for greater versatility with fewer pieces. Take, for instance, a small sofa in a patient room that can easily be converted into a bed for an overnight visitor or a side table that can be extended into a larger surface to provide more space for meals. Beyond the patient care space, secure mobile cart systems that store important medications and tools and can be tucked into small alcoves may permanently negate the need negate for additional or oversized storage rooms, allowing space previously used solely for storage to be adapted for other uses as needs arise.

Patient care areas can also be converted to improve efficiency by using retractable and movable wall partitions. Where stationary walls are limiting, operable partitions that can be hidden in the ceiling or shifted to different areas of the room are another way to strengthen space versatility. Rooms can be made bigger or smaller depending on the need, and design for future building systems, such as locations for medical gas outlets, should be considered when designing for these adaptable spaces. As patient and provider needs change over the years and hospital systems grow, operable walls will be a valuable enhancement to any room.

Shell space

With formerly small to mid-size cities like Fort Myers, Florida and Boise, Idaho rapidly becoming hot spots for population growth, healthcare systems will need to be more future-focused in building out new hospitals and wings. Shell space is a common and resourceful tactic hospitals can use to ensure they’re able to tackle larger patient populations without significant disruption to already established flows. Building in space for growth and keeping it unfinished opens the door to multiple possibilities for future use. Shell space can be “banked” for future patient care use as administrative function space, team member break areas, large meeting areas or storage functions. Success for these spaces is gained during the design process through pre-programming for hypothetical future uses.

Consolidation of services

Healthcare space is at a premium, and the increasing demand for urban facilities that have limited space for structural growth has required innovation in business processes to streamline operations for efficiency and minimize the footprint of non-revenue generating building areas. Ryan’s Architecture + Engineering group has supported healthcare systems across the country in the design, development and consideration of consolidated service centers. These centers have taken on non-patient hospital functions, such as supply storage, and equipment sterilization, and relocated these functions out of the hospital footprint into integrated service centers that are centrally located to support multiple facilities. This gives premium hospital real estate space back to revenue-generating patient care services.

Engineering upgrades

While code minimum is often the immediate basis of design, designers and owners can create resilience in new designs by considering additional connection options for power, oxygen, medical gas, and other building engineering systems in patient care areas. This ensures these high use areas are more easily and immediately adaptable to higher treatment uses, advancements in technology, and the subsequent increase in infrastructure demand.

During the early development stages, it’s also crucial that the design plan considers interstitial space in the layout. These interstitial spaces between each floor house mechanical, electrical, and data systems and with adequate spacing can accommodate systems upgrades  without impeding accessibility to existing patient and provider floors or disrupting ceiling clearances. In addition, knowing that expanding technologies will require associated cabling and structural support, it’s important to ensure these “spaces between spaces” are right-sized to ensure the design of the existing space doesn’t preclude it from easily accommodating future technologies and uses.

As highly adaptable and flexible healthcare facilities will soon become mainstream, the design sector should anticipate a rise in requests for patient care spaces that can be converted into alternating uses to accommodate new functions and procedures. Greater flexibility bodes well for greater resilience, with adaptable spaces better able to meet the shifting demands of the future.

Linaea Floden, is director of architecture for the Southeast Region at Ryan Companies (Tampa, Fla.), and can be reached at linaea.floden@ryancompanies.com.



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