Bricks and mortar are fundamental to the NHS, and the pandemic has seen many examples of the NHS estate being adapted or recommissioned to meet urgent demands for space. Christopher King of NHS Property Services reflects on how rethinking NHS space can help to futureproof health and care in the NHS and in the wider community.
When we think about the NHS, we think of the amazing staff that make our health organisation so respected around the world. They give their all, day in, day out, and particularly over the last few pandemic years. However, another fundamental part of the NHS is its bricks and mortar; the myriad rooms, wards and offices that enable staff to carry out their work . As well as the unprecedented demands it has made on staff, the pandemic has also exacerbated demands on space, and functionality has had to be changed to accommodate this.
Reconfiguring clinical space
Throughout the pandemic, we have been working alongside the NHS to help meet urgent demands for space, whether it be through rapidly adapting current buildings to protect other patients and NHS staff from COVID-19, converting occupied sites into vaccination hubs, or recommissioning vacant or underused space to create additional bed, testing and vaccination capacity.
It is vital that urgent demands for space are met swiftly and, through identifying the potential of unused space and collaborating with local health systems, we have shown that this can be achieved.
The importance of data
The pandemic has also emphasised the need for accurate data in the health service.
Analysing the footfall in our properties or the ways that rooms are used can help us to identify which spaces are being utilised most often, and which could be repurposed to better serve patients and staff. This can also provide us with invaluable information about an entire facility's capacity, cost, condition, or suitability. Thus, alongside general insights from staff and customers, collecting further data helps to inform the demand on facilities, which is fundamental to ensuring we make the most of the health estate.
Providing space for the community
If space is not being used to full capacity by existing NHS occupiers, we should make it more readily available for other NHS bodies and wider health and wellbeing services to rent
Optimising the health estate is a challenge that we will continue to face beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, it is important to continue to anticipate patient need and provide innovative solutions so that the public can get the most out of the NHS estate.
If space is not being used to full capacity by existing NHS occupiers, we should make it more readily available for other NHS bodies and wider health and wellbeing services to rent. These spaces, from clinical and activity rooms, to meeting rooms and offices, should allow anyone, from a clinician to a physiotherapist or a fitness instructor, to rent them, ensuring the valuable space is not lost. We have already welcomed a range of health, wellbeing, and community services into our buildings via our NHS Open Space service, which enables flexible room booking on a pay-as-you-go basis and now has a community of 3,800 users, including mental health, diabetes, and orthopaedic service providers.
Not only does this make better use of the estate and mean communities can access more services from one local hub, but it also helps to generate income which can then be reinvested directly back into the NHS. This has been particularly important in the past year when funding has never been so essential for the health service.
There has been a lot of uncertainty since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but one thing is certain: patient needs will inevitably continue to change. Adapting and optimising the NHS estate will help to futureproof health and care for the benefit of patients and the NHS.
Christopher King is principal strategic asset manager at NHS Property Services
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