Flexible design helped behavioral health hospital adapt to COVID-19

The University of Kansas Strawberry Hill Behavioral Health Hospital was able to adjust and function through the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to its flexible building design.

By Stephanie Vito June 15, 2020

The University of Kansas Strawberry Hill Behavioral Health Hospital had been open for just over six months when it was faced with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Strawberry Hill project came to be as our mental and behavioral health design team converted a former federal government office building into a behavioral health hospital focused on helping patients recover, heal and thrive.

The flexibility designed into the building helped Shari Riley, director of operations at Strawberry Hill Campus and Director of Nursing Behavioral Health Services at The University of Kansas Health System, adapt a portion of an inpatient unit into a COVID-only space without significantly disrupting operations and services of the rest of the facility. While there is no way to measure an outcome that didn’t occur, it’s fair to assume a less flexible building would have resulted in accelerated spread of the virus.

What makes the project so flexible?

During the project’s design phase, it became clear that ensuring unit flexibility was paramount for staff to deliver the type of care aligned with their vision. By creating three separate pods, or neighborhoods, within a single 24-bed unit, the pods can operate as two smaller units, or three smaller units by controlling a series of cross-corridor doors.  This flexibility provides the care team with the ability to separate populations by gender, age, or diagnosis if necessary. Each neighborhood of the unit has a clinical team station that provides visibility to the neighborhood, along with a multi-purpose activity room that can be used for therapeutic treatment, groups, dining, or daily activities. This allows each bed cluster to operate independently of one another, as was done when the coronavirus outbreak first started.

Riley and her team took a ten-bed pod on one unit, and turned it into a COVID-19 unit, with dedicated staff to run that area. Therapeutic activities and small group therapy sessions could continue, and these patients could also still eat in the associated activity room so they weren’t confined to their rooms. It also helped ease staff anxiety by knowing they were not going from a COVID-positive patient to a negative one.

Now that the number of COVID-positive patients has been consistently decreasing, the care team will transition the COVID unit from the original ten-bed pod to a smaller four-bed pod within the same inpatient unit. The ability of the unit to sub-divide not only helps manage constantly changing patient populations on a daily basis, but will be valuable as the potential for future surges or outbreaks remains possible.

The rest of the Strawberry Hill Behavioral Health Hospital saw reduced census numbers as government entities began issuing new stay at home guidelines.  For those already receiving care in the facility, or any new patients that did arrive who were free of COVID symptoms, they were able to implement their own version of social distancing on each inpatient unit.

Patients who were not on the COVID unit were able to spread out into several co-located activity rooms during mealtimes keeping an appropriate distance from one another. This was possible due to the proximity of these spaces along with views being possible from one space to another to enable staff supervision of activities in multiple rooms simultaneously. By isolating COVID positive patients to one, four bed pod, the remainder of the facility can be brought back up to  full occupancy and fully staffed to continue to meet the needs of the community during this crisis.

Since opening, Riley has been able to revamp Strawberry Hill’s entire treatment model because of the increased number of activity spaces and overall flexibility of the building’s design. Group services have been expanded, and there are now dedicated spaces to music and art therapy, giving patients more activities and therapy options to choose from.

Flexibility and adaptability are common goals for new healthcare facilities, and this pandemic has revealed that facilities capable of quick adaptability will drive better outcomes. Operating rooms were turned to ICUs, parking garages into testing sites and whole floors and units into isolation infection control spaces. Strawberry Hill’s inherent adaptability helped it be able to treat vulnerable patients who typically cannot delay care, and continuing caring for these patients as the pandemic continues to ebb and flow.

This article originally appeared on CannonDesign’s websiteCannonDesign is a CFE Media content partner.

Author Bio: Stephanie Vito, AIA, CannonDesign