I’ve attended Neocon several times in my 10-plus years covering design, but this was my first visit looking at the show through the eyes of healthcare. Walking away from this week’s event, three topics were clearly top of mind: senior living spaces, chemicals of concern, and hospital acquired infections (HAIs).

Throughout the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, showrooms offered new products and features to address these issues, from flooring options that appeal to seniors’ waning eye sight to bio-based textiles that are non-toxic and have anti-fungal properties.

There were also plenty of educational sessions that touched on these subjects. During “Infection Control VS. Sustainability in Healthcare: Problem Solved,” speakers Janet Kobylka, principal, Health Design Source (Dallas), and Deborah Fuller, senior interior designer, HOK (Dallas), shared some sobering statistics on HAIs:

• E. Coli can survive on dry surfaces for many months

• HAIs kill approximately 100,000 patients every year in the U.S.—that’s more than fire, accidents, and drowning

• HAIs account for $47 billion in added healthcare costs and 29.8 percent of hospital readmissions

• The number one method of transmission: the hands of healthcare workers

“It’s in the hospital’s best interest to address this,” Kobylka says.

Thankfully, the speakers didn’t drop this load of information on attendees without offering some guidance in planning strategies and materials choices. Among their recommendations are: single patient rooms, cubicle curtain-free designs, and split surface designs on over-bed tables, which allow patients to use one surface while caregivers can use another, thus cutting down on the potential spread of germs.

To reduce the number of places where dust and bacteria can collect, they suggest eliminating reveals in millwork and headboards, using solar shades or integral blinds on windows, and opting for glass touch screens, which can be easily wiped clean.

Kobylka also stressed improving the availability and location of sinks for hand washing (“Put them in the rooms so workers almost have to trip over them”) as well as adding self-closing drawers. “Anything you can do that’s hands free is wonderful,” she says.

On the materials side, Fuller discussed the growing popularity of copper and silver for their anti-microbial properties, as well as the use of UV light for disinfecting rooms, although she recognized both alternatives carry a high price tag. “The technology is here and a lot of hospitals are testing to see if it’s viable,” she says. “We’re getting there.”

These ideas and options are especially important as more bacteria become resistant to the traditional methods of dealing with them, putting greater emphasis on the role of design to offer a solution.