‘This changes everything’ report sheds insight on the path forward for healthcare facilities, hospitals

A whopping 100% of healthcare professionals think the pandemic opened up new ways of thinking that will endure long after COVID-19 is behind us, according to a recent survey by Mortenson.

And based on the survey findings, the industry should anticipate big investment going forward —  nearly half of respondents (40%) say facility investments are anticipated to exceed pre-COVID-19 levels.

The driving forces are the need for flexibility, space changes that maximize safety and comfort, and adopting telehealth.

“The industry has talked about flexibility in healthcare for quite some time, but perhaps hasn’t necessarily imagined it to this scale,” says Chantily Malibago, Director of Real Estate Development, Healthcare at Mortenson.

Let’s take a look at the survey results and what they mean for the healthcare construction industry.

Growing requests for flexibility are driving demand for modular

When asked about the long-term impact of the pandemic on healthcare facilities, respondents mentioned the need for greater flexibility more than any other topic (40%).

Executive, facility, and operational leaders talked about needing multi-functional spaces that could easily be scaled up or down, as well as flexible infrastructure improvements, such as heating, ventilation, and cooling, as well as air exchange.

Using modular or prefabricated construction to achieve flexibility is not a new concept in healthcare. Demand for flexible spaces was there long before COVID-19,” says Malibago. “The pandemic just pushed everything into overdrive.” 

It’s been an “ongoing conversation and consideration with healthcare leaders for quite some time as a way to really optimize: ‘How are we using our spaces to be able to deliver care? And how can we use modularity in construction and design to be able to flex the spaces to adapt’?” 

So what’s new?

Interest in modularity is growing because there is increasing need for expanded capacity, safety, and the ability to scale on demand based on acuity (the level of care a patient needs to receive), Malibago says.  

“During the early stages of the pandemic, much of the work being implemented in existing facilities was done to prevent infection spread,” she says. 

Think: HVAC systems to provide maximum flexibility for flow filtration, limiting contagion.

Then as the pandemic progressed, Malibago says hospitals teetered with capacity constraints for beds, and the conversation quickly shifted to creating patient care spaces that could accommodate the surge, and also be able to quickly flex and adapt.

“Maybe you have space that was a typical patient room, but you can quickly scale it to an ICU because you’ve got sufficient clearance within the room to bring in appropriate equipment,” Malibago cites as an example. Or, “You might have medical gas piping that’s in place in the walls that you could quickly access.”

From outpatient rooms and facilities, to ambulatory spaces and medical office buildings, to patient observation and ICU rooms, healthcare leaders are considering a modular construction approach for a wider variety of spaces than ever, says the report. 

Where healthcare leaders are investing 

Looking ahead, Mortenson’s healthcare trends study asked leaders where they want to go next. Nearly 40% said they plan to invest more in facilities over the next year and a half, and by far the biggest planned investment is revamping traditional hospitals (71%).

Investment in modular will focus on the following spaces, the report says: hospitals (60%), outpatient rooms or facilities (26%), telehealth space (4%), and patient bathrooms (4%).

Malibago says there is a growing desire to move away from talking about space as a fixed asset, and the industry is asking itself new questions.

“How can we integrate flexibility and modularity in how we’re constructing and designing these facilities so that we can flex to a future pandemic or a future epidemic, or really just flex to the changing needs of our communities and the care that they will need as a community ages?”

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Image by James John Jetel

To meet diverse community and staff needs, invest in a plan that extends beyond the built environment

You can’t talk about constructing a facility, without considering the people it is meant to serve — keeping in mind, patients and staff don’t exist in a silo. 

Other factors in their lives also impact how and why communities interact with a healthcare space. 

“It’s those determinants of health, such as access to care, food insecurity, housing insecurity, exposure to violence, exposure to crime, education access, employment, that all play a role in the healthiness of an individual and the healthiness of the community overall,” says Malibago. 

As part of a broader integrated system strategy, healthcare facility projects are increasingly investing in community partnerships to address some of the challenges, and even inequities that have an upstream effect on the health of the communities they serve.  

Malibago lists some examples: “It could be partnerships with schools to provide care access, but also partnerships with schools to provide exposure to healthcare as an industry, to provide training and education to the communities. You’ll also see some health systems that are making investments along the housing spectrum, as ways to add workforce housing or even provide transitional housing.” 

Pre-pandemic, facilities were already starting to design with employee engagement and well-being in mind, says Malibago. “Now, provider and staff shortages are only further incentivizing this process, with the added pressure of safety concerns.” 

Proper ventilation, air quality and air pressure top the list of design changes caregivers are looking for, but a desire for wellness spaces isn’t far behind, says the health trends report. 

To future-proof healthcare facilities and build environments that truly meet the ever-shifting needs of staff and communities, Malibago says healthcare leaders are trying to achieve a “marriage between clinical operations or patient-provider flow and the spaces that are used.” 

It’s a flexibility template of sorts, featuring both modular construction solutions (that can be reconfigured in the future), as well as a needs-based operational process. And together, they help deliver more flexible care. 

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