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Minneapolis, MN—In the midst of this coronavirus pandemic, there has been a rush to increase the number of hospital ICU beds to meet the expected peak in the next several weeks. For most, the primary focus has flexibility – a critical need that can be delivered through strategic design.

“For example, while licensing requirements can vary greatly by state, it is generally true throughout the healthcare industry that treatment rooms must be different sizes depending on the stage of patient care being provided,” says Mark Tiscornia, principal at Healthcare at Cuningham Group. “We may see an increase in facilities investing in acuity-adaptable units, which are designed to match the square footage of ICU rooms but are not fully outfitted for that purpose initially – the rooms can be retrofitted later as needed. While there is a premium to pay for this, the strategy can be extremely worthwhile, especially since hospital expansions are costly and should be designed with the next 50 years in mind.”

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, most states are now requiring hospitals to develop surge plans in anticipation of the number of patients they will be seeing in the weeks and months ahead.

“As always, we will collaboratively work with healthcare leaders to determine how their designs can allow for increased number of beds in case of future pandemics or other large-scale emergencies. This can be achieved by preparing rooms to handle additional patients,” says Tiscornia.

With the right design strategy, even spaces that may not have the required square footage under normal circumstances can be equipped to provide the necessary power in case of emergency. For instance, even conference rooms, dining rooms, and parking structures can be used as treatment areas in extreme cases, provided these are planned for accordingly, with utility access in place, Tiscornia tells

In the current situation, Level I trauma centers appear to be well prepared, as expected, because they have surge plans in place due to their licensing.

Once the current crisis is past, the industry is likely to see changes in design strategies that strike the right balance between preparing for another pandemic and meeting the required bed revenue, Tiscornia adds. “By continuing to listen to these stakeholders and work with them collaboratively, we will be able to accommodate the ever-increasing need for flexibility through thoughtful designs and strategies that are well-aligned with all aspects of a healthcare project.”

Emerging healthcare design trends for 2020

Tiscornia believes there is much innovation underway in the healthcare design sector.

“Ultimately, reimbursement rates continue to drive these trends – hospitals, like any other business, need revenue to stay open and function effectively. We’re currently advising several clients on strategic design decisions to deliver spaces that are tailored to be responsive to the typical flow of patient needs, while simultaneously offering flexibility as situations change.”

For example, Cuningham is currently working on several projects that involve the expansions of hospital observation units (OUs). Observation beds are unlicensed beds that can hold patients for up to 24 hours. By increasing the capacity of these units, hospitals are able to avoid emergency room bottlenecks without tying up inpatient beds.

“OUs want to be located near the emergency department to allow for potential surges in the ED. We typically plan OU beds to be equipped like ED rooms to allow for this,” says Tiscornia.

Additionally, there has been a shift towards implementing a universal size for operating rooms that is larger than most current standards require. This is because facility guidelines are updated every few years, and the square footage standards are often increased. By proactively designing larger spaces, hospitals can more effectively navigate changing standards and ensure they are positioned from the start with the space they need to continue delivering the very highest level of care.

Another healthcare design trend on the rise is the off-site prefabrication of healthcare facility components. While these options are not necessarily less expensive upfront, they are faster to implement, and can therefore generate revenue more quickly, making this strategy the right choice for some larger projects. The most common components being built in this fashion are bathroom pods, headwalls, and mechanical systems.