Hospital design experts Ryan Hullinger and Sarah Markovitz discuss the inevitable shifts in healthcare delivery as technology leads to new care settings and rethinking hospitals.
The explosion of telehealth prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a shift in care delivery away from the hospital and clinic and into homes and communities. While hospitals have historically been the main hub of care, technology and new care models are enabling a different approach to care delivery. Rather than episodic preventative care, in which a patient periodically goes to a physician or hospital with a health concern, this new model of care is continuous and ubiquitous—with ongoing care reinforced in the home, office, school and throughout the community. There are three key aspects to this shift: advancing technology, new care settings, and the future evolution of hospitals.
Healthcare may follow a familiar path blazed by online retail. It was not that long ago that virtually everyone preferred in-person retail experiences to shopping online. The technology that would later make online shopping experiences superior to brick and mortar just didn’t exist. Telehealth, by comparison, is still in the dial-up days. It’s difficult to imagine now, but based on the patterns we have seen clearly in other technology sectors, it’s probable that some healthcare experiences will be better remotely than in-person—more convenient, and less stressful and time consuming. The technology that will transform telehealth is on the horizon. It will take several R&D cycles, but it will come. In fact, there’s evidence that in areas like behavioral health telehealth is already comparable in efficacy to in-person care.
What might the next generation of telehealth look like? For one, rather than sequential visits with separate specialists, patients may be able to connect to a suite of caregivers, all working collaboratively to provide more coordinated, effective care. The type of continuous, convenient touch-bases and flow of information enabled by telehealth and wearable devices could be particularly effective for the elderly and those with chronic conditions, where communication and ensuring compliance with medication and preventive care are often an issue. There will also likely be an expansion in the types of care and services that can be provided, including everything from post-surgical appointments, to ED triaging, and eventually more complex tests as new diagnostic technologies emerge.
Automated technologies and artificial intelligence will also play an increasingly vital role in improving health throughout the community. AI technologies are being used to scan patient records, identify patients with hypertension and diabetes, and remind physicians to check in regularly with them. Hospitals have already shown good results using telehealth, texting and improved monitoring to help vulnerable populations and those with chronic conditions. Improved telehealth and health data capabilities could extend widescale efforts like these, improving population health efforts.
New Care Settings
With technology acting as a facilitator, more and more forms of care, especially routine procedures, will migrate away from hospitals and clinics. The home could become the new healthcare hub, with prefabricated telehealth units for the home that integrate medical technologies with telehealth capabilities. The explosion of smart home, home health and health monitoring devices, encompassing everything from sensors that detect sudden falls to smart watches that monitor heart rate and O2 levels, is only the tip of the iceberg. With the ability to monitor health data and communicate effectively with caregivers, the home could be a crucial site for preventive medicine, chronic disease management and ongoing care.
The home health model is only one possible model—the technologies that enable it may have shortcomings, or prove unaffordable to large segments of the population, further exacerbating health inequities and the digital divide. But healthcare can still be provided in a wide range of locations distributed throughout communities. Libraries, schools, community centers, homeless shelters and pharmacies could become hubs for telehealth resources and care, serving a vital role in improving the health of communities. A key consideration will be access and location—ensuring that healthy equity and care for vulnerable populations drives where these new care hubs emerge.
How Hospitals May Evolve
As care becomes increasingly continuous and ubiquitous, the role of the hospital may evolve. Rather than serving as a destination for all patient types, it will become increasingly specialized and streamlined, focusing on high acuity cases. They may expand their capabilities and efficiency in areas like perioperative and high-end imaging that are not available in community settings. In the process, hospitals are likely to become more compact, high performing and efficient by narrowing their focus. As part of this evolution, hospitals may also need to bolster their ability to expand capacity by 50-100% in anticipation of emergencies like epidemics, mass casualties and weather-related crises.
In the last 20 years, many hospitals have invested heavily in improving patient comfort and satisfaction, and have even borrowed processes and designs directly from the hospitality industry—creating patient environments that nearly resemble hotel lobbies and guestrooms. Patient satisfaction will continue to be a driver, but the environments that promote satisfaction are likely to change drastically. New environments that convey a sense of safety and cleanness will begin to feel more comfortable than the hospitality-informed designs of the past.
As this shift and gradual downsizing takes place, there may be opportunities to adapt existing space for other uses. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the dramatic impact of stress on healthcare workers. Hospitals now have an opportunity to provide sufficient and appropriate space for staff, helping to build resiliency to counter staff burnout and ensure the well-being of these truly essential workers. Hospitals could also aim to provide more community, patient and staff resources, such as spaces to demonstrate telehealth technologies and how to use them, or new hybrid offices equipped for telehealth.
As technologies, new care settings, and hospitals evolve, care will become more embedded in our daily lives. The pandemic may have spurred new interest in telehealth, but the trends shaping the future of care predate social distancing. They will continue to transform how and where care is delivered, ushering in a new era of ubiquitous healthcare.
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