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Telehealth and its impact on the future of healthcare design

s ims When The Ottawa Hospital (TOH) recently announced the planned construction of its new, $2.8B campus in the downtown core, one element in particular stood out: The facility’s Virtual Healthcare Hub.

Supplemented by a big data analytics platform and Command Center for tracking patient flow and capacity, the Virtual Healthcare Hub will use telehealth or telemedicine technology as part of every patient’s first contact with the hospital. This kind of virtual triage will help ensure “all but the most critically ill are treated outside a hospital setting,” the hospital says, while also improving patient outcomes and experiences.

Considering the alarming state of strained healthcare systems around the world, perhaps the most important element of such telehealth capabilities, however, is the ability to relieve pressure from physical infrastructure and scale the effectiveness of health professionals.

Indeed, the industry’s newfound embrace of telehealth has potentially profound implications not just for the delivery of healthcare, but also the design of healthcare facilities.

Before getting into telehealth and its impact on healthcare design, however, let’s look at the state of telehealth in 2022.

What is telehealth?

Telehealth is defined as “The delivery of healthcare, health education, and health information services via remote technologies.”

Telehealth has existed for years, the practice – like anything remote – really took off during the pandemic: A recent McKinsey report indicated telehealth usage, after an initial spike, stabilized at around 38X of its pre-Covid baseline by early 2021.

The mid-2021 report also said telehealth now comprises between 13 and 17 percent of U.S. healthcare interactions (compared to the initial spike in March 2020 of 32 percent of all office and outpatient visits).

Investments in telehealth technology have also ballooned, with around 3X the amount of venture capital invested in the sector in 2020 compared to 2017, McKinsey says.

Indeed, engineering firm Stantec – a designer and builder of healthcare facilities – says advances in telehealth technology and adoption mean we’re on the cusp of a “virtual healthcare revolution.” The company uses the example of a sick child in a remote community to show the value of telehealth:

“A family doctor examined a sick child in a remote rural area. The diagnosis was such that the physician would typically suggest a transfer of this patient to an acute care children’s hospital environment far away,” the firm writes. “However, because of the telemedicine capabilities between the facilities, they were able to keep the patient at the clinic close to home, diagnose and treat the child remotely.

“The $18,000 cost of the transfer was eliminated, as was the stress and travel expense for the family it would have required.”

Why is telehealth becoming more popular?

That’s a vivid example, to be sure – but saving transfer costs and reducing travel stress are just two of many reasons why telehealth’s popularity has skyrocketed.

The pandemic, as mentioned, was a major driver of telehealth adoption. But other factors, too, have come into play, including:

1.Improved telehealth technology. Improvements in real-time monitoring, communications, and remote diagnostic tools are the backbone of the telehealth revolution. Through the use of wearable and other portable tech, doctors can now monitor blood pressure, temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, and more. When combined with machine learning and other AI tools, remote diagnostics and monitoring becomes even more scalable.

2.Cultural acceptance. Although the prevalence of remote healthcare took somewhat of a step back following that initial huge spike in early 2020, McKinsey says more than 40 percent of survey respondents are open to receiving telehealth services in the future. That’s up from 11 percent of respondents before the pandemic. Telehealth is here to stay.

3.Financial reasons. A decade ago, a physician in the U.S. would have had severe difficulties being reimbursed for telehealth services. But as the practice has grown in popularity it has also become more accepted by payers such as insurers and government agencies.

Telehealth and its impact on hospital design

All of this is to say that the full-bore advent of telemedicine in day-to-day healthcare operations represents an inflection point in the design of modern hospitals. Telehealth and its impact on healthcare design means facility needs will change – indeed, already have changed, thanks to the pandemic – and hospital design will continue to evolve along with these needs.

  • Facility size: Fewer patients being treated on-site means facilities can have a smaller footprint while scaling their effectiveness.
  • Reimagined clinical spaces: Chicago’s Rush Medical Center is one example of a newly-designed hospital that includes lobbies equipped with electrical and medical gas outlets to accommodate massive surges in patients. In the future, it’s likely we’ll see hospital design include more infectious disease-capable rooms, larger emergency departments, and more flexible spaces with surge capacity. Chicago’s Rush center also features glass doors throughout its Tower building, which help with isolation while allowing physicians to discreetly monitor patient progress.
  • Decentralized care: The push towards telemedicine accompanies a simultaneous healthcare trend away from centralized acute-care hospitals, and toward providing care at ambulatory settings closer to where people live.

To accommodate expanded telehealth services, also expect to see more rooms equipped with virtual diagnostics tools and other remote technology such as high-definition monitors and cameras.

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