With COVID not yet history, symposium looks to health care construction and delivery

With beds for critically ill COVID-19 patients filling as fast as they could add them, leaders of top national hospitals systems say they looked to nontraditional spaces to increase bed space and outside health care for logistics ideas.

In turn, other industries, including hospitality and gaming industries as well as fast-casual restaurants and airports, looked to health care providers for new approaches that could increase safety for customers and employees.

The annual Vanderbilt Healthcare Construction and Design Symposium looked back over the pandemic’s last 18 months and as well as forward about how the collective experience is reshaping health care construction, diagnostics, delivery, and employment. The event is organized and offered by the School of Engineering Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

More than 20 experts took part in panels, fireside chats, and keynote presentations. The lineup included top people met in a hybrid format, with some in person and others virtually, over two days in August 202. Systems represented included UnitedHealth Care, Northwestern Memorial HealthCare, The Cleveland Clinic, BJC Health Care, Atrium Health, HCA Health, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Penn Medicine, and Advocate Aurora Health System.

Remaining flexible was key, said Dr. Timothy Lineberry, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer at Advocate Aurora Health System.

“Build for efficiency, build for expediency and all out speed whether it is efficient or not,” he said. “After our initial planning and response, we changed things quickly, critical things. We put off elective surgery while preserving life-saving surgery. We had Emergency Department tents set up that we wound up not using.”

“One of our key issues up front was the ability to collect and understand data,” Lineberry said.

Advocate Aurora spans two states, 26 hospitals and 500 clinic sites. Standardizing approval processes, workflows, signs, and patient intake were key, and having good numbers made it possible to shift nurses and other front-line workers across state lines as needed, he said.

With the Delta variant’s spread among unvaccinated people increasing hospital caseloads, health care providers are looking to what they learned from earlier waves of the pandemic. Use of and access to telemedicine, which had begun before COVID, will only accelerate, officials said.

The need for more flexible, multipurpose spaces to accommodate surges in occupancy was another theme. Hospital officials reported using facility theaters for beds, lobbies for vaccinations, and tents when weather and other circumstances allowed it. George Mann, professor of health facilities at Texas A&M University, suggested turning to shopping malls that wither on the vine as more people turn to online commerce and away from brick-and-mortar retail outlets.

Creating safe spaces, or zen dens, for hospital and clinic staff to take breaks and eat was touched on by several leaders. As was communication and data collection within each system and with peer institutions.

Kevin Mahoney, CEO of Penn Health, misses one aspect of the pandemic’s initial spread through the U.S. “In March 2020 we were all pulling together, and every Friday all the CEOs of local health care systems met via Zoom,” he said. “Generally, we compete way too much. We are better working together and sharing.”