Whether we realise it or not, the built environment has a big impact on our wellbeing. Living and working in buildings that are safe, fit for purpose and of course pleasant to be in can have a big impact on how you feel. And when you’re not well, specialised healthcare facilities are vital for delivering the care you need to get better.
But at present, half of the people in the world still lack access to essential health services. In extreme circumstances, like natural disasters, droughts or armed conflicts, this can have terrible consequences.
The link between construction and welfare is one focus for the Wellcome Trust, a UK-based foundation that tackles global healthcare challenges around the world. Providing healthcare almost always requires some form of temporary or permanent structure, but in emergencies or remote locations, builders can be working within very severe constraints.
The Wellcome Trust recently ran an exhibition in London exploring how a new design is helping Doctors of the World to care for patients in areas that might otherwise be totally accessible. So how do you deliver healthcare in the most challenging and desperate situations–and what lessons can we learn for the delivery of healthcare worldwide? Let’s explore, below.
Care in the World’s Least Accessible Locations
Doctors of the World is an organisation dedicated to providing care in areas that other health workers can’t reach. That could mean disaster zones or extreme environments: anywhere that lacks the resources available in built-up areas.
The organisation has provided services in Haiti following the earthquake and hurricane which destroyed the healthcare infrastructure; delivered care to refugees stranded in Greece following long and dangerous boat journeys and offered support for local women in Nepal with their sexual and reproductive health.
Doctors of the World delivers services ranging from intensive and complex emergency care, through to support for people’s wellbeing with community centres. But providing this care requires temporary structures that can function in a whole range of environments–and the options currently available each bring their own disadvantages.
Tents can be vulnerable to the weather and lack privacy for consultations; meanwhile, containers need to be delivered by truck, so are often simply not an option in rugged landscapes. Doctors of the World needed a new design for a temporary structure that could be adapted to the needs of different environments and support its ambitious operations.
Designing the Global Clinic
Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, an international architectural practice based in London, took up the challenge. The group developed the Global Clinic, a structure created from plywood sheets that could be easily transported and then assembled in even the most inhospitable climates.
To create the intricate design, the architects used a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine, programmed to accurately cut out plywood pieces that would connect together to form the basic structure. The stability of the structure is provided through the “criss-cross” assembly method, which delivers sturdiness without adding weight. The team used prototyping to ensure that the design could be put together as easily as possible.
Crucially, the shape and size of each clinic can be adapted according to the needs of the Doctors of the World in each project. There is the option to add waterproofing, ventilation or insulation according to the climate where the foundation is providing care.
Throughout the design process, the team was focused on the needs of the doctors on the ground. The group even partnered with specialist consultants Chapman BDSP to include features that would encourage attendance by patients at the clinics, such as charging points for phones.
As well as suiting the difficult environments visited by the Doctors of the World, the Global Clinic will support efforts to establish long-term community centres and deliver the most holistic care possible, broadening access to healthcare for those who need it most.
The Evolution of Healthcare Construction
The Global Clinic design is an excellent example of how construction can fulfil a specific need and improve people’s lives in the process. But there are also wider implications for the role of construction in meeting global healthcare challenges.
Innovative technology plays a key role in the delivery of the Global Clinic, in the use of the CNC machine to effectively tailor-make each structure. While this approach might be particularly well-suited to the uncertain environments of emergency medicine, it’s also becoming more relevant to all kinds of healthcare settings. Off-site manufacturing (OSM) is more efficient and can deliver more complex designs, to provide cost-effective and sophisticated healthcare facilities anywhere in the world.
The Global Clinic is also highly adaptive design, which will be increasingly important as healthcare evolves in the years ahead. Healthcare provision is going to need to adapt to deliver care for a growing, and ageing, population. At the same time new procedures and technologies such as artificial intelligence are developing rapidly.
It may be that construction in healthcare needs to shift from permanent, longstanding infrastructure to designs that are flexible and sustainable, to keep meeting the changing needs of healthcare–and the Global Clinic provides an excellent early model.
Ready for the Future
Improving access to healthcare is one of the most pressing issues in the world. Healthcare projects like the Global Clinic showcase how intelligent designs can meet and even exceed the needs of providers on the ground, by using creativity and the latest construction methodologies. With this kind of adaptable, sustainable approach, architects and builders around the world can help to deliver the next generation of healthcare worldwide, whatever that looks like.