CEO & Executive Director at the Illinois Medical District; Instructor at Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Commercial real estate owners and developers responsible for healthcare facilities are facing a pivotal moment. They are forced to rethink the ways their medical office buildings — from standalone facilities to storefronts in retail settings — must be adapted to a post-pandemic environment.
This past spring, as I supervised the conversion of five facilities into Covid-19 alternate care sites for the State of Illinois, I realized this was the beginning of a new normal. Post-panemic, healthcare facilities must and will change, especially since future repeats of infectious disease epidemics are likely.
Consider that nearly half of Americans surveyed said they won’t get the Covid-19 vaccine when it’s first available, which means healthcare real estate owners and property managers must retrofit existing buildings and design new projects with health issues in mind, protecting against the current pandemic that experts speculate will be endemic and the likelihood of reoccurrences in the future. Evidence seems to suggest the pandemic will have greater staying power than we suspect. As we head into the holidays, three important trials are on hold and cases in the U.S. continue to climb to the peak numbers.
Healthcare building owners, developers and property managers must look to incorporate the latest health and safety technologies into their facilities and find innovative ways to redesign and/or modify preexisting systems and spaces to ensure these spaces are safe environments for all.
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Touchless access features are an obvious fix; they can be added to medical facilities to help limit the spread of contagions and are already in common use. Waiting rooms are obvious candidates for overhauls too, since the coronavirus is understood to be spread by infectious people in close proximity to one another in enclosed spaces.
Early on in the pandemic, Plexiglass guards were installed in many healthcare waiting rooms designed to protect workers from patients. However, that doesn’t solve the problem for those actually doing the waiting. Besides distancing office furniture, there aren’t many cosmetic fixes that can help matters. But system upgrades, new designs and moving treatments to off-campus facilities can make a difference.
Address Air Quality Issues
Indoor air quality in healthcare facilities must be addressed as scientists have learned that fresh air may lower virus transmission by diluting contaminants. Opened windows, an outside air ventilator, MERV 13 filters and ultraviolet germicidal irritation (UVGI) technology may all help make an impact. Lowering an office’s humidity level to around 50% may also limit the growth of the virus and help workers be more resilient to infection.
Rethink Building Design
In 2012, Rush University Medical Center opened its hospital Tower and became the first Chicago-area hospital “specifically designed to provide treatment for an outbreak of an infectious disease.” The facility included the addition of 40 negative pressure rooms that move air from the hallway into the room, rather than vice versa, to contain infectious particles in a room’s air. The hospital’s ER is also divided into a trio of 20-bed units and each one may be isolated with separate air handling.
This sort of forward thinking is needed in future building design to prepare for health risks to patients and healthcare workers. Part of this is reimagining the way hospital spaces can be utilized to accommodate new challenges that may arise and maximize space to perform at top capacity.
Moving Treatments To Off-Campus Facilities
Another change should be to take lessons learned from telehealth and off-campus routine treatment centers to free up valuable hospital space and further productive, meaningful collaboration. Outpatient centers will be key going forward. When Covid-19 struck, some outpatient facilities were able to keep patient exposure to the virus down and alleviate the fears of people who were afraid to go to the hospital for themselves and/or their children.
Covid-19 concerns are not the only reason for building outpatient centers. These flexible, modular spaces can be used by a variety of specialists and patients with different levels of health and are more convenient for those who don’t live near major hospitals. That means those who are in underserved communities now have a chance to get the medical help they need.
And it’s not just medical needs that are being served by these centers. Boston’s Mass General Brigham reportedly offers 12 outpatient centers complete with community gardens, yoga studios and demonstration kitchens, all designed to provide wellness opportunities for people and to help them make better health and wellness choices.
Healthcare Real Estate Is Changing — And That’s Good For Everyone
Covid-19 is speeding up the development of savvy building design and innovative tech in our healthcare facilities, but more still needs to be done. We must ensure that people feel safe walking through the doors and that doctors and healthcare professionals are protected when caring for the sick. We are no longer in a wait-and-see mode concerning the pandemic. The problem is more serious than anyone initially imagined and the time to act is now.
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