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Standardising our hospital design – a national opportunity

The Grange University Hospital

Anisha Mayor, UK Head of Healthcare

Anisha Mayor, UK Head of Healthcare | WSP

5 min read Partner content

WSP’s UK Head of Healthcare, Anisha Mayor, sets out the case in favour of moving to a standard design for future hospitals.

There are few pieces of national infrastructure so valued in the minds of the public as that of a hospital. These spaces provide support and comfort to our communities and are the workplace of world-leading professionals. UK hospitals are the physical embodiment of a healthcare service that continues to set the standard for similar models globally.

But as with all infrastructure, challenges of capacity versus evolving future demand loom large in relation to healthcare estates. And just as a hospital supports the health and well-being needs of its patients, so too it must adapt to accommodate changes in the delivery of healthcare, its own workforce and the needs of the community it serves.

Embracing the future – digital and sustainable

The healthcare sector, like many other public services, is experiencing a digital transformation, presenting an opportunity for improved digital infrastructure and patient outcomes. This includes creating buildings and healthcare estates that are tailored to the needs and journeys of patients, staff and visitors.

It is possible to greatly enhance a hospital’s capabilities through technology and we should embrace digital solutions as a critical component of the health sector’s transformation. Hospitals which incorporate digital technologies can give clinicians more time, support agile working and create an environment conducive to better healthcare practice. Successful digital infrastructure will create efficient, sustainable and personalised experience for both staff and patients, but not exclude those who lack the ability or resource to use it.

Crucially, the digital transformation also contributes to decarbonisation in hospitals. With the NHS committing to completely eradicating its Core Carbon Footprint by 2040, building design and through-life carbon management have become crucial considerations. To support these efforts, WSP worked on a state-of-the-art adult hospital and a new home for Leeds Children's Hospital at Leeds General Infirmary. WSP provided specialist net zero, sustainability and digital design advice, exemplifying the critical role of sustainable building practices and digital innovation in improving healthcare delivery.

More can be done to highlight the potential of these approaches in driving positive change in the healthcare sector and prioritise their integration into future healthcare projects.

Standardising whole hospital design

One way to approach this challenge is to standardise the design of hospital buildings themselves. There are two aspects to this: standardisation of the materials and parts needed to build (or retrofit) a hospital and the plan and layout of the building to maximise experiences of patients, NHS staff and visitors.

Standardising the design of our hospitals is a key enabler for modern methods of construction at scale which can enable significant economic and social benefits and encourage increased collaboration between Health Boards and NHS trusts.

With the construction market currently so constrained, standardisation would enable us to go beyond traditional routes to construct or procure new materials for hospitals. WSP recently delivered The Grange University Hospital in Wales, including a 450-bed specialist critical care facility, which using innovative technologies, such as a digital twin, enabled the design team to design and build it accurately and four months ahead of schedule with zero defects.

This convergence of using Modern Methods of Construction, 55% off-site construction and a digital design process provided the Aneurin Bevan Health Board with a more sustainable construction solution, reducing carbon emissions, increasing safety and enabled continued operational activity on their healthcare estate.

The benefits and learnings from The Grange Hospital can be extrapolated further. Imagine for a moment an assembly line manufacturing consistent parts for hospitals across the country which could be ordered and fitted quickly; a kit of parts design that enables easier lifecycle replacement with more flexibility and adaptability. This would facilitate the longer life of a building without having to demolish it; instead, the hospital building could be retrofitted for future uses.

Broader Benefits

This approach would be economically beneficial in the long run as capital costs would fall. Indeed, savings in acute hospitals would also allow for greater expenditure on prevention, social prescribing and community care which can reduce persistent issues like bed blocking.

On the broader design and planning of hospitals, there is an opportunity here to maximise efficiency and improve the experience for patients, NHS staff and visitors. Unique layouts are not helpful to doctors and nurses who are required to move frequently between hospital settings to provide care. Having to navigate through unfamiliar departments and wards is inefficient and ultimately results in the loss of the most important resource of all – time.

We have seen recent evidence of successful methods of standardisation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when our NHS workforce was stretched to its absolute limit, the careful separation of patient flows via standardised spaces to mitigate cross contamination risks was fundamental to both through-put and infection control in our hospitals.

A standard design for future hospitals across the country would contribute to greater social outputs and enhance the standard of care received by patients. It would enable greater consideration of the importance of wellbeing such as incorporating biophilic design and landscaping for everyone within a hospital. Moreover, such design would also provide the co-benefit of supporting vital work to decarbonise our built environment and the materials we use, helping the nation to reach our net zero commitment by 2050.

This approach would allow our hospitals to extend their operations beyond their usual life cycles through enhanced ‘retrofit-ability’, resulting in a ‘future-ready’ healthcare system that can deliver better health, social and economic outcomes for the UK.

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