The UK Government’s heath infrastructure plan (HIP) sets out an ambitious five-year programme of investment in health infrastructure, including a new hospital building programme. A major element of this initiative is the construction of new hospitals which support the long-term plan of the NHS to provide state of the art, modern healthcare facilities to the community. So far, 27 hospital building projects have been identified, a small selection have received immediate funding and are on track to be delivered as soon as 2025.
But with the global Covid-19 pandemic putting a major strain on our healthcare systems across the globe, which led to the construction and delivery of field hospitals at pace, it’s important to reflect on how this impacts the UK’s healthcare infrastructure plan. How can the learnings from this critical period be applied to the rollout of the HIP? The investment of much needed capital health spending is long overdue, and the execution of this opportunity must go beyond just bricks and mortar, to effectively meet the current and future complex healthcare delivery needs faced by the UK.
A well-defined data rich strategy supporting success
For the building investment, value for money is important. But crucially, ensuring the long-term strategy for maintaining the building is vital. Having a well-defined, data-rich strategy will make sure no major disruption occurs later down the line affecting the end-users who are in need of critical support. In fact, capacity of hospitals has long been a topic of discussion so there’s a unique opportunity to use the health infrastructure plan to redefine how hospitals of the future operate.
Ongoing financial constraints can affect decision-making around operational decisions concerning building projects. When faced with such life changing and impacting decisions, it is no wonder that building maintenance and operational decisions can often be overlooked in the hierarchy of funding. The HIP gives NHS Trusts the opportunity to evaluate their long-term needs taking into consideration the requirements for a hospital of the future to effectively deliver for their patients.
For many hospital trusts, long-term planning isn’t always top of the agenda as emergencies occur not just daily or hourly but sometimes minute by minute. However, when it comes to infrastructure investment, long-term planning is crucial. With the Covid-19 pandemic impacting so deeply on how we live and work, hospitals and healthcare providers saw a rise in outpatient treatment. Considerations on how this will be adapted into mainstream care will affect the layout and planning of current hospitals including an increase in space dedicated to outpatient consultations and adaptable in-patient resources among the important considerations.
Creating flexible and adaptable spaces
If anything, the impact of the Covid-19 crisis in our hospitals demonstrated the need for more flexible and adaptable healthcare spaces that can effectively respond to unexpected demands placed on them. The healthcare system was forced to expand capacity, including increasing adult critical care in intensive care units, which risked being overrun by the spiraling rate of infection in the country. Many hospitals had to deal with a shortage of private rooms and, in some instances beds, for the growing patient population.
In response, the NHS built 11 Nightingale hospitals to provide additional capacity for up to 16,000 beds. Some of these hospitals were built in a mere matter of days with support from digital technology tools and new and different methods of construction. Standardised components helped to create adaptability for these field hospitals and off-site construction sped up the construction process timing ten-fold whilst improving safety on site.
Covid-19 has reinforced the need for increased infection control; the need for single rooms post-pandemic is likely to be even greater. But this means future hospital infrastructure needs to provide more flexibility of rooms for in-patients, with implications for design and staffing. The space needs to be adaptable to create controlled space that can be changed at speed if needed to control the spread of infections and effectively treat patients. How about designing hospital buildings with wards that can be adapted to quickly and easily to create private spaces using modern methods of assembly and disassembly?
A varied approach to construction
A range of modern construction approaches, including offsite manufacturing and standardisation in the form of repeatable room design can help create more efficient building programmes while providing certainty to future maintenance needs. Not only can this support more flexible spaces but it can also help NHS Trusts reduce their carbon footprint. Using innovative, low-carbon materials, and new designs means hospital infrastructure can play a crucial role in reducing carbon emissions, through net zero developments, efficient energy and water use, reducing waste and supporting smarter building structures.
The UK hospital infrastructure of tomorrow must be adaptable to the fluctuations in demand – not just to continue to deal with the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic but also to equip them to handle future demands and to pre-empt and respond to long-term trends in healthcare needs like ageing populations, rising acuity of hospital admissions, the expansion of diagnostics and increasing pace of clinical innovation. The UK’s health infrastructure plan provides a much-needed financial injection to help boost the health of our hospital infrastructure. It’s also a great opportunity to reassess and re-evaluate the long terms needs and reassess the critical infrastructure required to deliver better outcomes for patients and society as a whole.