One of the clearest lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is the need for greater flexibility in modern hospitals to accommodate sudden surges in patients.
While the response to the pandemic across the UK illustrated how modern construction methods can be mobilised to build temporary Nightingale hospitals in just a few weeks, healthcare designers would do well to apply those principles to their permanent buildings in the future.
The need for Nightingale hospitals was driven by a strategy to protect the NHS due to the high risk of hospitals running out of space and resources to treat COVID 19 patients with severe symptoms, while at the same time handling those with milder symptoms and asymptotic patients. Not forgetting the need to also provide safe care to non-COVID-19 patients with critical conditions.
The health system in the UK has evolved to have a core capacity that has over the years become exponentially smaller in the drive to be as efficient as possible, reducing unnecessary and costly hospital stays. It’s a model that leaves very little capacity to adapt to the needs of a pandemic surge.
Health planners aren’t about to start building facilities that sit empty or underused waiting for the surge outliers. But the innovation used for COVID 19 should inform a new approach to building hospitals – one that incorporates the flexibility to change the use of existing facilities to meet surge demands while maintaining necessary pandemic infection control protocols.
The innovative offsite construction methods that delivered those temporary nightingale hospitals can also be used to build modern permanent facilities that incorporate the necessary ventilation and biosafety technology to adapt quickly from general medical use to ICU.
Offsite construction has a key role to play in the delivery of affordable facilities that have been built with infectious disease pandemic preparedness in mind and offer the flexibility required to quickly adapt for a surge.