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Autonomous vehicles and healthcare design: five ways the driverless future could affect urban medical center master-planning and design

It’s the most disruptive technology of our time – and it will change the way people use healthcare buildings

By: Daniel Gaitan, Senior Designer, Healthcare Architecture and Master Planning, Houston, TX

Did you know that human error is blamed for more than ninety percent of car crashes? It’s one of the driving factors behind developing the Autonomous Vehicle (AV). This driverless technology reacts faster and more appropriately than people thanks to the sophisticated technology and sensors that can better detect objects and their distance in relation to the vehicle’s location and speed.

Now, imagine a world in the not-too-distant future, when AVs have become commonplace. How will the reduced emergency room visits from fewer car accidents affect distribution of limited resources, like hospital staff? Are there other changes that could be made to improve hospital operations and efficiencies?

A future with AV will radically shift the way our urban environments are laid out, where we live, and how we move. Circulation is a critical factor when it comes to designing buildings – people, goods, and information are constantly moving. Our new mobility options will affect design and future planning of urban medical centers.

1.     Resource management and process coordination will be reevaluated to improve efficiencies and user experiences.

From reduced emergency room visits due to fewer accidents, to a discharged patient going home, all of us will be affected by the advent of AVs in some way.

Beyond the patient experience, AVs will have a role in improving a hospital’s operational efficiency. The same automated technology that supports the mobile robots carrying supplies throughout a hospital today can one day be used to connect hospital systems across a city. Integrated Artificial Intelligence (AI) and real-time navigation will help streamline supply delivery, optimize patient transport, and maintain overall safety.

Related Project: UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay

AV technology will reduce accidents, which means fewer emergency room visits (Pictured: AURORA Connected Vehicle Test Bed Network)

2.     The drop off experience will be reimagined from how we’ve known it for decades.

Most hospital traffic enters today’s facilities through a central valet area. In a high-volume, urban medical center, it doesn’t take much for this to become a major bottleneck. But, in the future, AVs can mitigate much of this.

Through a coordinated effort between connected AVs and wireless and location-based technologies, valet areas can be virtually eliminated in favor of multiple drop off points. This will ease congestion by transporting staff, patients, and other traffic to the most suitable arrival point for their destination. If there is a traffic jam, AVs can utilize real-time navigation to reroute users to a less congested entrance – and then reorient them by connecting them to the hospital’s wayfinding system.

User experiences will be tailored based on their next steps after arrival, enhancing their first impression and ultimately saving time, improving safety, and reducing stress.

Multiple drop-off points will replace central valets. User experiences will be tailored based on their next steps after arrival. (Pictured: Mercy Hospital)

3.     Staff and patients alike will be granted new opportunities for reducing stress and focusing on what matters.

I would imagine traffic ranks highly on the lists of reasons for elevated blood pressure at a doctor’s visit. For staff, it’s often due to losing one of their most valuable assets – time. An average clinician spends fifty-two minutes commuting to work. With AVs driving you to work, a physician could now use that time to examine their patients’ charts and research their conditions.

On the other side, a patient has a safe and comfortable environment for stress-free decision making, catching up on missed work, or coordinating any necessary follow-up activity. Ideally, there would no longer be road rage, and the blind, senior citizens, disabled, and kids could be chauffeured to their appointments.

4.     Outdoor spaces will be redesigned to help institutions better serve their communities.

In urban medical centers, space is at a premium. The garages that have been in place for decades are usually in prime spots of land that could be redesigned for much better use.   

Medical centers are 24/7 cities with patrons who have 24/7 needs. It’s been well-documented that interacting with the natural environment has a positive effect on a patient’s overall well-being and ability to heal. Families that are caring for a loved one also need spaces that can accommodate their extended needs.

Redeveloping the land used by the central garage hubs would enhance retail, commercial, and hospitality needs of the community by providing markets, pharmacies, eateries, and gymnasiums, amongst other amenities. More green spaces (like entry gardens, roof terraces and gardens, and healing and meditation gardens) could be built into the campus’ core, adding value to the community and encouraging progressive development and planning. It could even offer land opportunities large enough to accommodate a world class hotel for extended stay housing options near the medical districts. 

Parking garages can be transformed into retail, commercial, and hospitality needs of the community (Pictured: Cooper University Hospital – MD Anderson Cancer Center)

5.     With AV technology, urban medical centers of the future will be better.

Happier staff. Healthier patients. Reduced readmissions. Improved operations. These are the ultimate goals that I believe AVs will help medical centers achieve. And, while there are many legislative and insurance challenges to solve before the driverless world becomes a reality, along with the societal evolution that would need to happen, it will be interesting to see how we reap the wide range of benefits offered by AVs. Zooming out to look at the vascular flow of our cities and designing with the end in mind will aid us greatly in imagining the hospitals and urban medical centers of the future.

Author credit: Daniel Gaitan is a senior designer, Healthcare Architecture and Master Planning in our Houston, Texas, office focused on healthcare architecture.

Redeveloping the land used by the central garage hubs would enhance retail, commercial, and hospitality needs of the community.

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