Engineering hospital systems to work effortlessly

While quite a bit of engineering goes into each mechanical, electrical, plumbing, or fire and life safety system in a hospital, it is mostly invisible to the patient or visitor. That is, until you need it.

By Amara Rozgus, Editor in Chief, Consulting-Specifying Engineer February 3, 2017

Hospital food notwithstanding, hospitals are pretty amazing places. People enter—sometimes walking, sometimes under more dire circumstances—and often leave relieved of any ills that they went in for. Some hospitals play celebratory music each time a baby is born, if only to remind those who are suffering in a hospital bed that joyous things also happen in hospitals.

The doctors, nurses, and specialists within the hospital are often the people we think of when it comes to hospital care, but it’s really a team effort. After a brief stay in a local Chicago hospital for an appendectomy and some other complications, I realized that the cleaning team, security staff, and yes, even the hospital nutrition department, were all key to recovery. Each person had a role in curing patients and took that role seriously in trying to make people feel more comfortable and secure in an unpleasant environment.

What fascinated me in this ultra-modern hospital, however, was the intricate set of medical gases, electrical systems, HVAC systems, and fire and life safety equipment. Most people don’t think they need 20 electrical outlets near their bed, yet when something goes wrong, those outlets can make all the difference in the world.

For patients struggling just to breathe, specialized environments like a negative-pressure room offer up that extra pulmonary assistance needed. Positive-pressure rooms, like operating rooms, fall at the other end of the spectrum. And throughout the entire hospital, the hallways, atriums, and general staff or visitor spaces have to meet normal HVAC requirements.

During my stay, I heard the public address system announcements about various hospital emergencies, the paging of specialized practitioners, and even a “toaster smoke reported, alarms temporarily disabled” notification.

All of these systems and people had to sync up perfectly to ensure each patient and staff member was safe and cared for in the best possible way.

My hat is off to those of you who engineer systems in hospitals. After just seeing the maze of measurement equipment, electrical systems, and call buttons involved in an everyday hospital room, I’m amazed that each system works together impeccably make a patient’s visit run smoothly, though there are a million things going on behind the scenes.