How Healthcare Facilities Can Prepare For COVID-19

The director of healthcare design at Chicago firm Skender shares advice based on her experience during the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

By Amy Byrnes

What’s the best way for healthcare facilities to prepare for the potential spike in patients needing to be tested and treated for COVID-19 and future global health crises?

According to Jenny Han, director of healthcare design for Skender, a Chicago-based construction, design, and manufacturing firm, the number one issue is containment.

Drawing on her experience working with Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, Han says one of the most important ways to contain the spread of COVID-19 is by providing straightforward information to as wide an audience as possible.

healthcare facilities
Photo: Rush University Medical Center

It’s also imperative to ensure people are not flooding medical facilities and spreading the virus, said Han, who provides architectural designs for healthcare clients. She suggested ways to combat overcrowding that might include offering telemedicine options and resources — websites, phone numbers — for people to get the facts to determine whether they need to be tested.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” she said. “People are in a panic, so they need consistent and constant reminders in ways that they can digest.”

Finally, healthcare facilities need to anticipate the increasing number of cases and adopt an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to accommodating swelling numbers of patients, said Han. In Chicago, Rush University Medical Center is adopting a “surge response” to the outbreak by opening ambulance bays to test and treat the “massive amount of people coming through to be tested,” she said.

Other hospitals are taking a page from Korea’s playbook for effectively flattening the curve by testing widely and implementing the drive-through testing approach to addressing an influx of patients and containing the virus.

Another all-hands-on-deck approach is utilizing consultants and leveraging their relationships with suppliers to help get personal protection equipment to healthcare providers, which Han said was “critical.”

“One thing I hope that happens in the future is that leaders of healthcare institutions start talking to each other so that they’re sharing resources and information with each other so that this hoarding level that’s happening on a personal level is not happening at the institutional level,” she said.

The future of crisis response to a global pandemic might be modular healthcare “pod” exam rooms that can be easily installed and isolated in an existing hospital to provide safe quarantine rooms, which Han has been working on developing at Skender. During the Ebola outbreak, she also created a Biosafety Level 3 laboratory for work involving microbes that can cause serious and potentially lethal disease via inhalation.

healthcare facilities
Shown here is a modular healthcare pod exam room, inside the Skender factory. (Photo: Skender)

But each pandemic will come with its own set of circumstances, some which would benefit from these modular systems more than others. For the Ebola outbreak, Rush separated a part of an existing unit, which were equipped with med gasses, emergency power and a separated air supply to allow safe treatment of patients.

But inpatient volume should not be that tremendous with COVID-19 because most people will just have flu-like or common cold symptoms, said Han. Modular units could be ideal for providing quality-controlled spaces for testing labs, Han said.

“We’re ready for the call and taking inventory of what we have and what materials we would need to get to respond to that,” she said.

For now, Han said we are already seeing the benefits of using data and learning lessons from across the world about what one country did or did not do to flatten the curve.

“Sharing information is critical in this scientific world,” she said, adding that it’s been wonderful to see some of the restrictions that would unnecessarily slow down testing for a vaccine are being lifted.

“People understand the urgency of that,” Han said

Byrnes is a freelance journalist who writes on a variety of topics that have been published in The Washington Post and Family Circle magazine, among others.

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