Can your physical environment improve health care?

There was a recent article in the Health Facilities Management Magazine (HFMM) addressing ways the physical environment can help improve health care.  After reading the article, it got me thinking about all the ways our health care facilities could greatly benefit from truly understanding how their physical environment can help with patient safety.

In 2015 HFMM published a trend series of articles called, “The Front Lines of Patient Safety”. The trends addressed the many ways design and construction, environmental services, engineering and supply chain professionals help to create a safe environment. Many of the current changes in regards to patient safety are driven by compliance regulations. What about the other ways we can help foster a safer environment of care? Should our health care environments be threatened by codes and regulations in order to make corrective actions to keep patients and staff safe, or should our health care environments take further initiative, think outside the box, and take the lead all together?

Furnishings and furniture, such as, chairs, sofas, work surfaces, beds (including mattresses), partitions, curtains and window coverings, have a huge impact on patient safety. These items can be made with harsh chemicals and can be breeding grounds for bacteria to grow because they cannot be properly disinfected on a regular basis. Counter tops that are porous and cannot be cleaned with a disinfectant can do more harm than good by potentially spreading more germs, even though they are esthetically pleasing. According to the HFMM article, “The Four Ways the Physical Environment Can Help Improve Health Care”, there have been at least five hospitals that have decided 30 percent of their annual volume for their furnishings will not contain five chemicals and materials that are potentially harmful according to Practice Greenhealth. Some of the five chemicals Greenhealth’s Healthier Hospitals consider a concern, include: Flame Retardants, Formaldehyde and Antimicrobials.

Engineering and construction of new facilities can play a large part in patient safety, just in how it is designed and built. University Medical Center New Orleans mandated a disaster preparedness design after seeing the devastating effects that Hurricane Katrina took on Charity Hospital. The hospital decided to place all mission-critical components on the second level, 22 feet above base flood level, to ensure that the hospital can continue operations during a disaster. A surgery center here in Portland Oregon designed their facility with lots of open space, helping patients feel more relaxed and less stress. They placed multiple janitor closets to keep areas within their facility completely separate from one another so the risk of cross contamination when cleaning was reduced. All of these ideas aren’t requirements but simply people thinking outside the box when creating the right physical environment with patient’s safety in mind. Factors like room proximity and workflow layout may contribute to stress, fatigue, disruptions and interruptions of the health care staff’s duties that can increase errors and lead to safety incidents, says Joseph Sprague, FAIA, FACHA, FHFI, principal and senior vice president, HKS, Dallas.

When thinking about your physical environment, ask yourself what could we change or implement that isn’t already a requirement of us? Maybe it is better furnishing, creating an environment that is less stressful for staff members, working with more vendors who understand and have the same goals in mind that you do, particularly in regards to infection control. Whatever you may decide It has to involve a concerted level of teamwork with everyone who is involved.