What to Expect from the Hospitals of Tomorrow? Healthcare Construction Goes Back Online

It’s time to get back to work for the country’s healthcare construction industry. For months, health networks and corporations have been focused on helping existing facilities keep up with the demands of the coronavirus pandemic, which meant putting future construction projects on hold.

At Commercial Observer’s Fourth Annual Healthcare Construction Forum, industry leaders were on hand to discuss their plans for the hospitals of the future. The pandemic has changed their approach to the construction of new facilities. Corporations are looking to increase the flexibility and resilience of hospitals and care centers, so they are better equipped to handle the pandemics of the future.

Speed Building During the Pandemic

Going back to the status quo of usually taking several years to build a new healthcare facility isn’t an option for many leaders and construction project managers in the healthcare industry.

During the coronavirus pandemic, hospitals and contractors were forced to build temporary patient care centers and field hospitals as a way of responding to the dramatic influx of patients. From makeshift tents to temperature-controlled trailers, facilities all over the country were able to build temporary care facilities in just a few weeks.  

This helped facilities and providers stay on their toes. New triage and patient care tents could be assembled in a matter of days to make room for additional ICU patients and those complaining of COVID-19-like symptoms.

Commenting on these trends, Joe Ienuso, senior vice president for facilities and real estate for New York-Presbyterian, said, “We could build a field hospital in 10 days while it takes us six, nine or 12 months to design a property and two to three years to build them. We need to take that urgency that we all realized together … [and] we need to improve the efficiency of the work we do together. We should not be relieving ourselves of that obligation.”

Overall, panelists and speakers at the construction forum shared Ienuso’s assessment of the current situation. Industry leaders seem to understand that spending years building new facilities from scratch may not be good for business.

Steve Friedman, director of facilities engineering for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, added, “We had put up six trailers in approximately three weeks, then you wonder how come we can’t do this on a regular basis.”

Post-COVID-19 Facility Planning

Based on what was discussed at the forum, shorter project timelines could be here to stay, and the same could be true for flexible treatment areas.

Industry leaders and project managers also seem to understand the need for added flexibility in clinical settings. During the throes of the pandemic, facilities often had to set up their makeshift COVID-19 wards, ICUs, and other temporary treatment centers, in areas that were originally designed for other purposes, such as storage areas, basements, waiting rooms, and other non-clinical settings.

Going forward, project managers will start designing clinical settings that can be used for a variety of purposes in case they need to be converted or repurposed down the line.

From the contractor’s point of view, this means adding more power outlets, so providers can quickly set up additional monitors and medical equipment. These rooms will also need additional plumbing for dialysis machines. New specifications and requirements are being added, so providers can turn these rooms into makeshift ICUs at a moment’s notice.

Companies need to be more careful with their money so they don’t end up investing billions of dollars in a new facility that’s unequipped to handle the pandemics of tomorrow. It’s also about putting new facilities and resources in place now, as opposed to waiting several years down the road.

As Jonathan Cogswell, Northwell Health’s assistant vice president of facilities service and engineering in the Manhattan region, put it, “If money was no object…we would have a truly adaptable facility.”

He says companies need to balance existing needs with long-term goals. “You have to figure out, as we look back on what we had to do for this, what took the longest, what was our biggest challenge and can we put that in place now. From a capital perspective, what can you justify as preparation without going too far,” Cogswell added.

When it comes to cost, administrators seem to understand the importance of preventing and containing future outbreaks. Investing in a billion-dollar cancer treatment facility may sound great on paper, but that’s no longer the first priority for communities still being ravaged by COVID-19.

Location, Location, Location

The pandemic is also changing where people live and work. Office vacancy rates are rising across the U.S. as more people start working from home. Almost 70% of business leaders believe that at least a quarter of their staff will shift to full-time remote work after COVID-19.

While some companies have started bringing their employees back to the office, the risks can outweigh the benefits.

Major U.S. cities have been hemorrhaging residents for months. San Francisco, CA and New York, NY had 80% more people leave than move in. Rural states like Nebraska, Idaho, and even parts of Florida are starting to attract movers from all over the country, especially those looking to reduce their living expenses.

If these trends are here to stay, why would a healthcare company spend a fortune building a new hospital in the middle of Manhattan? We could see more companies building new facilities in suburban areas where workers are starting to spend the bulk of their time.

Overall, the hospital construction industry is pivoting toward more flexible treatment centers. Tomorrow’s hospitals need to be ready for the next pandemic, or we will have to go back to setting up tents in the parking lot.

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