Nolan Rome: What if we can… design a children’s hospital for the future?

Senior Vice President, WSP in the USA

When we are designing children’s hospitals, we tend to focus on how to make the medical environment seem more like home for young patients and their families. What has been less well considered, until now, is how we can use smart technology and design to help children engage in their own treatments in subtle yet empowering ways.

Clinicians tell us it can be difficult to prepare children for surgery and other medical procedures. They tend to rely largely on bedside conversations in the run up to treatment to gauge their young patients’ wellbeing and state of mind.  Yet children often find it hard to express how they are feeling, particularly to adults they are unfamiliar with.

That’s set to change, thanks to the increasing popularity of wearable technology and handheld devices. Children use this type of technology for play, and learning at school, so inviting them to use it to become involved in their treatments is a logical step.

What if we can use smart technologies in designing children’s hospitals in the future?  How will they compare with our children’s hospitals today?

Smart and connected

Let’s imagine a smart children’s hospital in the not-too-distant future. We know that familiarity is key to smart design strategy, so if the user interface is familiar – for example wearable tech in the form of a bracelet, or an ‘iPad’ style tablet – young patients are more likely to use it – and enjoy using it.

Integrated into a smart hospital, these interfaces will enable them to control aspects of the environment around their hospital bed, such as lighting and temperature, and make requests for food, assistance or entertainment.  As well as providing comfort, this data will offer clinicians insight into their patients’ wellbeing.  A desire for dark and cool personal space could indicate fever, for example.

Artificial intelligence and smart materials are also likely to become part of the patient experience. If children or visitors spill food or drink accidentally, robots will clean meticulously and instantaneously to maintain the highest hygiene levels.  Self-healing surfaces will prevent germs lodging in the nooks and crannies of equipment.

The human element

It’s clear that smart integration succeeds best when it is allied firmly to what people want, and what makes them feel comfortable.  This is demonstrated by current projects, including the architecture, landscaping and interior design of the most forward-looking children’s hospitals.

In the UK, the innovative new health park recently opened on the site of Liverpool’s Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, connects children to nature and sets a new benchmark for holistic paediatric care. WSP worked on this project in partnership with BDP architects and the resulting design – a campus around a central atrium – is forward-thinking in its approach.


Alder Hey Children’s Hospital

Interestingly, the design grew out of direct consultation with young patients. When they were asked for their ideas on how to create a calming, positive environment that would enhance the healing process, they emphasised the need for fresh air, natural light, and play areas. What has actually been built is based on a flower design drawn by a teenage patient.

The needs of each individual patient are carefully considered within the design. Single rooms are provided for more than 75% of patients, with windows set at a child’s eye level. Specialist acoustics contain noise from hospital equipment, while at the same time ensuring the privacy of each room. This type of design opens up the way for enhanced use of smart and digital technologies.

Asking children for their input into the design process, and providing quiet personal space for each individual, were amongst aspects of the Alder Hey project that have helped shape our thinking on designing children’s hospitals for the future. Involving patients in the creation and management of their own personal space clearly gives them a better sense of control within their hospital experience.

Smart technologies that are fully-integrated into digital systems and buildings are a blueprint for the children’s hospitals of the future.  Delivering such hospitals is our challenge. We certainly believe we can design children’s hospital for the future – and the journey towards them is underway, right now.

About Nolan 

An architectural engineer by training, Nolan is a practice leader in WSP’s healthcare team in the US. Although much of his time is devoted to project coordination, Nolan remains a passionate ‘hands-on’ engineer and continues to design mechanical systems including central energy plants.

Nolan has spent most of his career in the healthcare sector and thrives on the diversity within the sector and the wide variety of people he meets. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1999, he joined engineering consultant ccrd, which was acquired by WSP in 2014. Key recent projects include Dell Children’s Medical Center, which was the first hospital in the world to achieve Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum Certification and Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

With a keen interest in outdoor pursuits from camping to cycling, Nolan also enjoys mentoring junior colleagues. In 2012, Nolan was named by the US weekly Engineering News-Record (ENR) as one of the country’s ‘top 40 engineers under 40’.

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