Getting Hospitals Back on Track: Safely Bringing Healthcare Back Online

How to Prepare Our Hospitals to Balance Covid and Non-Covid Care

May 21, 2020

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s note: Our healthcare clients are on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. We seek to support them as they courageously care for the sick. So we’re posting design ideas based on work with them, in the hope that we can contribute from our base of expertise to help combat the epidemic. From all of us at NBBJ to the many doctors, nurses and support staff in hospitals and clinics, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

This post initially appeared on Forbes. It was co-authored by Ryan Hullinger and Sarah Markovitz.


Since the middle of March, nearly all elective surgeries and medical procedures in America were postponed to create capacity for the first wave of Covid-19 patients. While the curve has started to flatten and many facilities are reactivating their procedural platforms, there is still hesitation in patients seeking in-person care for fear of inadvertently exposing themselves to the virus. As a result, many patients with both chronic and acute conditions are putting off necessary health maintenance and avoiding trips to the hospital.

For the healthcare industry, this is devastating both in terms of its impact on patient care and its bottom lines. Hospitals — especially non-profit hospitals — historically operate on extremely narrow financial margins. With so many departments sidelined, the average American hospital has seen an estimated average drop in operating revenue of 40 – 45%, resulting in significant furloughs. These actions take a huge emotional toll on staff, many of whom were bracing for battle only a month ago and are now suddenly without a job.

America can’t afford to continue putting its wider healthcare system on pause in the likely event of another patient surge in the summer or fall. So what solutions could help keep appointments and procedures on track? And how can we ensure that they are performed in a safe manner?

All entrances, lobbies and screening processes should look calm and well-organized to assure patients that the facility is in control of the situation and safety is the number one staff priority.

There are many design changes that can make this happen and many of them begin before patients set foot on hospital grounds. Hospitals should use their websites to present clear communications with patients so they are aware of the safety precautions and instructions for their arrival.

Inside the hospitals, there needs to be legible signage that communicates cleaning and disinfecting processes for the facility. For example, many hospitals have existing digital signage outside of rooms that previously communicated room occupancy. This can be repurposed to communicate cleaning frequency and efficacy. This can be as simple as something like “This room was cleaned three minutes ago and is ready for use.”

Thoughtfully planned wayfinding will be equally important. These need to demarcate separate pathways for those with and without Covid-19 symptoms entering the site, covering the patient journey from the parking to the entrance to the treatment areas. Wayfinding solutions could use unique colors and shapes – such as the color pink or a triangle shape – to help messages stand out.

Planning hospital flow for optimal safety

Accommodating coronavirus and non-coronavirus patients in the same hospital requires thoughtfully planned and clearly delineated processing and treatment zones. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recommends establishing distinct zones for each group. In the coronavirus care areas, symptomatic patients will be identified, screened and receive appropriate medical guidance and contract tracing efforts. Where possible, these areas should be physically separate from other hospital services — this could be a different building, a dedicated room/floor with its own entrance, or pop-up tents adjacent to the hospital.

For patients with Covid-19 who come for treatment of other issues and conditions, a bespoke multidisciplinary clinic can be set up to address their needs. For patients who have yet to be screened, administrators can work together to plan uni-directional flows throughout hospitals so those coming in and going out don’t cross paths with one another.

This will also require consideration for features like elevators to ensure they don’t become contamination zones — potentially by having designated staff operate them, reducing the number of persons allowed in at any given time, and identifying separate elevators for coronavirus and non-coronavirus patients.

Rethinking the waiting room

Balancing care for coronavirus and non-coronavirus patients in parallel may require rethinking the traditional waiting room entirely. Hospitals are designing new patient experience systems to alleviate patients’ anxiety by limiting the amount of time in the hospital outside of direct appointments and treatment.

After being screened for Covid-19 at a triage tent, patients can wait outside the hospital until they receive a text that their doctor is ready to see them, at which point they are taken straight into a treatment room to promptly be seen by their provider. By using mobile communication tools, these hospitals are decentralizing and streamlining the waiting room experience.

For the majority of Americans who access hospitals with their own vehicle, cars could become the new waiting room. For those living in more urban settings, hospitals can consider converting larger and more spacious rooms like cafeterias and conference rooms into waiting areas. This would allow for greater distance between patients waiting to be seen. Reconfiguring furniture for appropriate spacing, leaving signs on chairs and tables after they’ve been cleaned, and using markers to establish appropriate distancing for any lines are all immediately actionable solutions.

All of these considerations will change as PPE supplies, Covid-19 screening, antibody testing, and tracing programs continue to evolve. By closely aligning thoughtful and innovative hospital programming and operations with solutions that project a sense of safety and care, we can start to reconfigure our hospitals and healthcare facilities to operate within this new reality.


How are you and your healthcare organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at

Banner image courtesy Benjamin Benschneider.

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