With nearly 1 million confirmed cases worldwide and counting, COVID-19 is straining healthcare facilities unlike anything in recent memory. It also presents an unprecedented opportunity to analyze how healthcare facilities are performing and which design elements could have an impact on clinical operations.

As the crisis evolves, healthcare practitioners have had to adapt and establish best practices to address the influx of patients. Many of those lessons learned are being shared globally. This is a vital first step to respond to the crisis. But we must not forget to think about the long-term implications and how this experience with COVID-19 can inform the future of healthcare design.

The pandemic nature of the COVID-19 virus, coupled with the absence of cures, vaccines, or existing treatment knowledge, makes it possible to compare the performance of different facilities on equal terms. Of course, there are certain variables to consider that impact the level of care. For instance, staff and resource availability.

Nevertheless, the current situation enables studies that can generate insights into how healthcare facility design influences performance metrics, including recovery rate, infection rate, and patient experience. Here are a few questions that could be addressed with these data-driven studies:

  • What treatment facility size can better adapt to unexpected new demands?
  • How does the number of entrances into the facility and waiting room configuration impact infection rates?
  • Which room design produces better results: large and open for flexibility, smaller and closed for isolation, or a combination of both?
  • How do biophilic interventions, such as access to natural light and outdoor views, affect patient experience and recovery rates?
  • What is the impact of providing more efficient routes between nursing stations and patient rooms?

To pursue these answers and more, we need both healthcare practitioners and design professionals to come together and share their data and knowledge. On one hand, healthcare practitioners track several metrics for normal operations and regulatory reporting, which highlight their priorities and the results we want to improve. This data can be complemented with occupancy evaluation studies to measure the staff and patient experience.

In addition, healthcare practitioners should record and share if and how they adapted their facilities to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and provide feedback on which elements of the built environment supported or hindered their capacity to address the pandemic. Most importantly, to enable a correlation with individual building design elements, we need the metadata that identifies which specific building the data corresponds to.

Design professionals, on the other hand, hold knowledge of the detailed design of each treatment facility. To close the loop for correlating the healthcare data with design elements, we would need to create a shared database of treatment facility designs.

One potential pathway to create this database could be to establish an open-access online platform to submit project descriptions, key metrics, final floor plans, and photographs of the facility as constructed, then leverage machine learning algorithms to tag and compile a list of the design elements for each facility.

Together, the healthcare performance metrics and the treatment facility design database would have the power to drive the next generation of evidence-based healthcare design.

The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly a tragedy, but it would also be a tragedy for us not to learn from this experience and be better prepared for the next viral pandemic.

Flavia Grey, PhD, is a senior data strategist in for ZGF Architects (Seattle). She can be reached at Flavia.Grey@zgf.com.