Healthcare buildings need to be designed and built based on principles of flexibility to accommodate current healthcare operations, adapting to time-sensitive physical transformations and responding to contemporary and future public health emergencies.

Flexibility during the COVID-19 Pandemic Response: 

Healthcare Facility Assessment Tools for Resilient Evaluation

Frank Sinatra once crooned that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. Though they don’t lend themselves to a catchy tune, flexibility and sustainability are also a highly successful pairing, especially when it comes to the design of healthcare spaces.   

When done well, each principle reinforces the other. Sustainability involves a concerted effort to avoid wasting natural resources. Flexibility has many meanings but, when applied to architectural design, it can be defined as ‘the ability of a building to adapt to changed spatial requirements and functional solutions according to short, medium or long-time perspectives.’ 

If a healthcare space is flexible, it becomes more sustainable. When needs change, flexible healthcare facilities can be repurposed rather than demolished. And when we build with sustainability in mind, we automatically consider longevity, which is more easily achieved if the space can be used in versatile ways.

The future is flexible

Queensland’s Metro North Health, for example, in its Sustainable Design Guidelines, requires contractors to develop plans with ‘whole of life considerations’ to ensure facilities are future-proof, flexible and adaptable. 

European researchers agree, noting that, ‘A whole life-cycle approach to the healthcare facility operation is needed considering the rapid and constant alterations of healthcare environments resulting from transformations in medicine, technology and organisational changes.’ 

A flexible healthcare space is able to:

  • Accommodate current problems and needs
  • Respond to changed circumstances, especially emergent issues such as a pandemic, localised outbreak, or nearby natural disaster
  • Adapt to new trends such as an increase in patient numbers, a changed demographic mix, new treatments and technologies or a different approach to healthcare. 

We can see some of these changes on the horizon but there will be many others that we can’t anticipate fully when designing a healthcare facility. All we can be sure of is that demands and services will change over time. That’s why

“Flexibility is the key requirement of healthcare facilities of the future and consequently, designers need to consider the unknown needs due to technological, societal and epidemiological changes…Modular and fast construction, the repurposing of spaces and equipment of temporary settings have emerged as approaches to manage the urgent need for flexible and resilient solutions.” 

The role of mobile and modular healthcare facilities

We’ve personified flexibility and sustainability as two love birds who bring out the best in each other. Their natural offspring? Mobile and modular healthcare facilities.  

These are built off-site to your exact specifications. They can be used to enhance hospital capacity or facilitate refurbishment with minimal disruption to services. 

And their sustainability credentials are impressive. Mobile and modular facilities are: 

  • Built off-site in a controlled environment that helps to reduce emissions and waste. That, in turn, enables hospitals to comply with sustainability requirements such as minimising on-site construction energy use and emissions.  
  • Built bespoke and to high clinical and sustainability standards – they’re often more energy-efficient and high-tech than the main hospital, featuring solar panels, HEPA-filtered air and effective insulation
  • 100% recyclable and reusable once the facility has served its intended purpose. They can be deployed to serve the same purpose at another hospital or can be dismantled and their parts recycled as part of a new mobile or modular unit.
  • Patient and staff-friendly – biophilic design allows greater levels of natural light through bigger windows, supporting sustainability efforts and enhancing the overall look and feel of the facility.

As for flexibility, mobile and modular facilities are: 

  • Up and running far more quickly than a traditional build, allowing hospitals to respond promptly to changed demands such as: 
    • Adding extra capacity to address waiting list backlogs
    • Responding to natural disasters
    • Maintaining services during a planned or unexpected refurbishment
  • Adaptable to changed needs – the mobile facility can repurposed to serve another area of the hospital estate. 

Case studies

The Prince Charles Hospital in Brisbane recently installed a fully-equipped modular decontamination suite and a mobile eight-bed recovery ward in order to perform an additional 450-500 procedures per month. 

The speed and quality of this facility greatly impressed the hospital staff. As Ann Vandeleur, Project Nurse Manager at the hospital commented, 

“If you built from scratch it could take three or four years. Not only has it been delivered in a fraction of that time, it’s been delivered to the quality and standard we and our patients need and expect.”

Staff in a modular endoscope decontamination facility were similarly pleased with the flexibility of the space and the biophilic design aspects. 

“The unit has provided flexibility and given us enough time to efficiently train staff on the new equipment as well as continuing to maintain their service levels at the same time…It has been a godsend and the team really love working in there, they especially love having windows.”  

Flexible healthcare facilities for triage, consultation and treatment of patients with minor injuries were important considerations for the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, which was struggling to manage demand for its emergency services. Its new mobile and modular Minor Injuries Unit now features a laminar flow operating room, ward, reception and waiting area, treatment room, plaster room, eye washroom, six treatment bays, clean and dirty utility spaces, lavatories and a changing room. 

As for surge planning or emergency response capacity, it’s worth remembering that mobile and modular facilities already meet rigorous standards and so can be rapidly repurposed. Mobile operating rooms or procedure rooms can quickly be turned into additional bed spaces, offering highly flexible options for responding to unanticipated needs.  

If your hospital needs flexible healthcare facilities, please contact Q-bital Healthcare Solutions.