The future of healthcare has never been predictable, but the challenges resulting from the pandemic brought that uncertainty front and center, redefining the ways we work and catalyzing innovation.

One year later, as vaccines roll out and are reviving our hopes for a return to “normalcy” our attention shifts from a reactionary mindset to one of reflection.

We recently sat down with Petra team members Angela Daniel (Project Manager), Chris Hickman (Assistant Vice President of Planning and Design), Dawn Fredrick-Seibert (Director of Interior Design and Space Planning) and Logan West (Director of Construction) to get their thoughts on the lessons learned, strategic insights and changes that will drive the industry’s future. Today, we are sharing some informative excerpts from those conversations.

QUESTION 1: How has COVID changed the way you work?

Daniel: Most notably, 100% of my work is now remote. Initially, this was a challenge as we determined how to stay well-connected with team members and clients alike, but over time, I think the remote approach has proven to increase our team’s progress and productivity. Meetings that used to be in-person are now remote by necessity, but they seem to be just as effective as before, and to our benefit more cost-conscious. The personal nature of having video calls set in our homes has generated a different kind of personal connection across the board – we are all suddenly much more “human” and can now empathize better with non-work-related impacts to productivity.

In terms of progress, we’ve learned a great deal about digital collaboration on video calls. The screen sharing feature, for example, allows us to be much more efficient at communicating (versus verbal descriptive sharing). Our previous in-person interactions did not really allow for that kind of collaboration, short of everyone crowding around one screen in a meeting room.

Hickman: Prior to the pandemic, about 50% of my work was done away from the office – visiting client locations, attending meetings or traveling – so from a purely logistical perspective, not going into the office had little effect on the way I work. The pandemic has increased the time I spend at my desk, which has allowed me to produce more written material and given me more time to develop approaches to solving problems, which is a large component of my job. On the other hand, this shift to working remotely has decreased my ability to spontaneously brainstorm with colleagues in face-to-face settings, which I previously did whenever I was visiting the office.

It has been interesting to witness the transition of how socially acceptable video conferencing has become for business communications. In the past, it would not have been deemed respectable to suggest “calling in” to many of the meetings I attend – it was perceived as laziness or a lack of commitment to the client or project. But now, everyone is using video conferencing as our primary form of communication and collaboration, both with colleagues and clients.

One other small observation I’ve noticed is that my “carbon footprint” has gone down significantly. I’m not sure how to quantify the exact extent, but the reduction of travel does have an impact.

Fredrick-Seibert: To echo what Angela and Chris mentioned, while my day-to-day looks different, also, my role within Interior Design and Space Planning has thrown me head-first into figuring out safe and sustainable solutions for our clients in hospitals and doctors’ offices.

I’ve worked with our clients and team partners to reconfigure any and all potentially hazardous open-air spaces like waiting rooms, cafeterias and more. These pivots included physical aspects like re-working the seating arrangements as well as logistical ones, finding new ways the hospital cafeterias could continue to serve people while upholding proper safety protocols. The challenges presented with open floorplan waiting rooms also allowed us to re-think and identify newer, safer best practices for scheduling and managing patient appointments.

In my opinion, I’d like to see a lot of these spatial planning changes we’ve made remain in place long after the pandemic has subsided.

West: COVID has created almost a complete reliance on remote team collaboration through programs like Zoom and Microsoft Teams over the past year. Although I was continuing to meet onsite at Covenant campuses with leadership, design and construction teams regularly, other in-person interactions decreased significantly to around 25% of the time, making the adaptation to virtual communication that much more critical.

With shelter-in-place orders, travel restrictions and social distancing, these platforms have enabled us to continue to perform our jobs effectively and relatively seamlessly by being able to communicate with our clients and design teams virtually.

QUESTION 2: How has COVID changed the way our clients work?  What are their top challenges or concerns right now?

Daniel: My clients are often balancing more responsibilities related to COVID, alongside normal duties. Although they may be in-office part or full-time, it is still a significant challenge to have more responsibilities with less or different resources available. As such, many clients’ focus has been compromised due to pandemic responses and the general impact of this global shift in the way society functions.

The outbreak of COVID-19 had an immediate effect on the progress of many of our previously planned projects. Between safety protocols and adjusted budgets, these projects were put on hold, and now, a year later, getting those projects re-started and back on track still remains one of our top challenges. This has been particularly difficult as all re-start projects are required to be reviewed under post-pandemic requirements which can delay or extend project progress.

Hickman: In healthcare, the client focus is still on immediate needs (COVID-related, financial stability, patient and staff safety, etc.), and not on longer term planning – which is my area of focus. My assumption is that this will change as the pandemic is perceived to be less of an immediate concern, but it is difficult to predict when that will happen or if there will be specific conditions that will precipitate that shift.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced hospitals and health systems to change – which they did, in short order – however, the desire to change in the long term will be tempered with a desire to “get back to the way things were”. Margin pressure, lack of access to capital, existing health delivery processes and protocols all still exist to retrain forward momentum. You know what they say, “old habits die hard”.

Fredrick-Seibert: Beyond the immediate need to re-think the spatial planning of hospitals and doctors’ offices, many of our clients have been presented with challenges regarding the upkeep of their sanitation practices. For example, the cleaning product that was initially being used on waiting room chairs was actually destroying the fabric material, which led physicians to wonder about the impact it might be having on the lungs of EVS personnel if it could damage fabric so quickly. As such, our clients have now upgraded to a more effective, safer sanitizer option, Monofoil.

COVID presented another urgent challenge for our clients this time last year, and that was to create safer barriers between their employees and the patients they serve – this is how plexiglass became king. I personally think these types of clear partitions were a long-time-coming, and as such, I don’t think they’ll be going anywhere any time soon.

West: COVID-19 has required hospitals to rethink workflows, allowing various support teams to work remotely while still providing the same level of service. On patient floors, that translated to compartmentalizing units to respond to the surges of COVID patients requiring isolation and high-acuity care. It also catalyzed many operational changes and improvements to the overall patient experience.

For instance, providers that previously used more antiquated patient registration models have increased focus on virtual health, including transitioning to wait-from-home technologies that use online queues and telehealth. Some challenges for our clients include financial stability and growth, challenges in responding to the nation’s mental health crisis and the general public’s fear of safety in a hospital setting, which has led to decreased visits and a negative impact on healthcare provider revenue.

QUESTION 3: What are future implications that COVID will have when it comes to physical environments?

Daniel: When it comes to newly constructed physical environments, I am not sure that there will be many drastic changes. But for pre-existing physical spaces, I think the long-term impact of COVID will include the addition of barriers (or the ability to implement them, at the very least) as well as adjustments to mechanical system approaches related to air exchange.

I also believe there will be innovation in the textiles and finish materials sector to create surfaces that are more contamination-resistant and easy to sanitize without compromising the aesthetics or core performance of the material.

Hickman: There will be a number of medical facility changes that will likely result from this pandemic – whether mandated by code, desired by owners and operators or recommended by designers and builders – in an effort to reduce the risk to patients and staff. This will range from process or sequence-related activities that have space implications, environmental systems (such as distribution and rate of air changes) and site of care.

Similar to the airline security following the 2001 terrorist attacks, or school security following the gun-related incidents that have occurred over the past decades, we should expect to see continued changes that help reduce health risks in high-risk situations.

Fredrick-Seibert: The healthcare industry’s physical environments have radically changed this past year, and I foresee those safety upgrades continuing in the years to come. Many investments that clients used to consider as optional are now coming to the forefront as budget priorities, including projects like the installation of sinks along all corridors (especially with hands-free faucets) to encourage proper handwashing.

New research over the last year has also brought in an elevated sense of trust in certain materials that might not have been considered before, such as copper (in lieu of stainless-steel surfaces, especially with bacteria-ridden wood edges) and vinyl (in lieu of fabric furniture). And like I mentioned before, the plexiglass partitions that are now used in most hospitals and doctors’ offices will become a permanent fixture.

West: There will be a continuation of the forward-thinking design changes to programmatic space requirements allowing for things like compartmentalization, surge capacities and social distancing. We anticipate seeing more flexible building designs for critical care, multifunctional spaces and increased adaptive reuse. Given that this pandemic is airborne, there will definitely be a continuation of indoor air quality improvements and HVAC enhancements. Touchless interactions will be elevated through automated design strategies, and we also foresee a more focused approach towards creating outdoor spaces that promote emotional wellbeing.

Although it is difficult to predict if or when the healthcare world will go back to “normal” after the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided, one thing is for sure: the reactionary lessons we have learned over the last year will undoubtedly carry us through to a safer, more strategically innovative future for the entire healthcare industry.

At Petra, we specialize in aligning healthcare trends with strategic intent to deliver creative solutions that will be sustainable for years to come. As healthcare company leaders embark on re-starting pre-COVID plans, we encourage you to contact our team to find out how we can partner together to create better.

How has COVID-19 impacted the way your systems, operations and output? What does your “new normal” look like? Contact us to discuss.

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