There is no doubt that the emergence of COVID-19 has led to a change in attitudes, with resilience, flexibility, adaptability and the need to increase preparedness for future pandemics at the forefront of healthcare executives’ minds.

A recent survey of experienced healthcare industry leaders, conducted by Australian Healthcare Week (AHW), showed that 80% of respondents believe that Covid-19 will change the way that healthcare facilities are designed and delivered in the future.

The findings from the survey, which aims to identify the key opportunities and challenges for the year ahead, are published in a report on the state of the Australian healthcare industry, the latest edition of which is entitled ‘Adapting to forces of change in 2020 and beyond’.

Resilience is a key thread running through the report. While the pandemic is far from over, healthcare decision makers, architects and designers need to consider what changes are needed to avoid a repeat of the current global crisis.

A catalyst for change

Health providers immediate response to the Covid-19 outbreak has already led to an acceleration in the rate of change in the healthcare sector. Ahead of the second wave, 64% of respondents were already working in an environment where healthcare spaces have been transformed or expanded to cater for Covid-19 patients.

As well as expanding and remodelling existing space within hospitals, health providers are also looking outside hospitals’ walls, making use of flexible mobile and modular healthcare infrastructure to increase current and future surge capacity within the estate.

But it’s not just about being able to respond to the immediate crisis and providing emergency care. Once the initial outbreak was under control, the focus shifted to maintaining continuity of service and delivering core services such as routine care, elective operations and diagnostic procedures while caring for Covid-19 patients, in order to avoid cancellations that would lead to backlogs further down the line.

Future proofing: what matters most?

When it comes to designing healthcare for the future, there is no single solution; a combination of enabling factors and different approaches is needed deliver real change. These include collaborating within the industry, rolling out new technology, increasing online appointments and expanding telehealth, re-thinking design, educating the workforce and better planning.

When asked about the most important considerations in designing and constructing newbuild health facilities, ‘flexibility and expandability’ ranked second behind cost effectiveness, with 20% of respondents citing flexibility as the most important factor, followed by patient experience and patient flow.

There are, however, ways to improve performance across all three top criteria without necessarily having to wait for a new building to be constructed. Flexible healthcare infrastructure can provide cost effective, flexible capacity to cope with a temporary surge in demand or unforeseen circumstance, while also improving both patient flow and patients’ experiences.

Increasing preparedness

Including some form of temporary, flexible healthcare infrastructure solution within future plans is imperative. During the pandemic, many hospitals have taken an innovative approach to internal space, but ultimately when demand exceeds overall capacity, something has to give. In the case of Covid-19, elective surgery was reduced or cancelled altogether.

A mobile or modular operating theatre, diagnostic facility, sterilisation department or ward can be brought on site for a limited time period to ensure continuity of service at critical times, and can be set up very quickly.

While flexibility is already a cornerstone of hospital design, in the future, greater flexibility will need to be incorporate in all aspects of healthcare delivery. This process has already started – Covid-19 has forced the industry to adapt and implement flexible solutions, as well as technological and digital initiatives that will change the way healthcare is delivered in the future.

Being fully prepared for unprecedented scenarios may not be entirely possible, but our collective experience of this pandemic is providing useful insight into the potential consequences of a variety of approaches on a global scale. For health providers considering how to design, expand and transform facilities to deal with future pandemics, the lessons learned now will be extremely valuable for future planning.

The report can be downloaded from AHW’s website and compiles insight based on more than 120 interviews with experienced healthcare executives. It also investigates the key drivers of change that are currently shaping the Australian healthcare industry, including how the healthcare sector has prepared and responded to major disruption caused by Covid-19.