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How to design hospitals for the dead and dying

COVID-19 patients are dying alone. Is there any way to make their experience—and that of their loved ones—less horrifying?

How to design hospitals for the dead and dying
[Photo: robypangy/iStock]

The number of Covid-19 related deaths is rising, a fact accompanied by an equally horrifying truth—many of those who die will do so alone.

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Visitors are typically restricted, which means that family members of some coronavirus patients are prohibited from being with them in their last days, unable to touch or hold their loved ones. This scenario is only expected to get worse. According to the Institute for Health Metrics at the University of Washington, as many as 82,000 people in the United States could die from the contagion, while other models show up to 125,000 people. Many health facilities—from traditional hospitals to makeshift alternative care sites—will have to decide how best to provide dignified end-of-life care to COVID-19 patients and their loved ones.

The two of us have collectively worked in healthcare architecture and research for more than 30 years and have worked nationally and internationally on palliative care solutions in a variety of healthcare settings. We also both recently lost loved ones. We know firsthand how important compassionate end-of-life care is. Yet existing guidelines from Centers for Disease Control on alternative care sites—the very places many acute COVID-19 patients are dying—do little to address it. Here’s how traditional and nontraditional care spaces alike can create safe, comfortable end-of-life experiences, even when resources are stretched thin.

A comfortable environment

Support privacy

Having a degree of privacy is crucial so that each patient can say goodbye to loved ones or have religious rites. This can be done in-person or, more likely these days, virtually. (Some facilities do allow a visitor for end-of-life cases, with the provision that visitors wear personal protective equipment.) Normally, patients get a private room, but many hospitals are overrun and simply don’t have the space.  Instead, hospitals and makeshift medical facilities could provide a simple curtain or a divider between beds.

Family visits

Establishing protocols for visits is important, so patients and family alike know what to expect. Facilities should clearly communicate whether visitors are allowed in person or virtually, what visiting hours are, how many visitors are allowed, and what sort of screening they need to pass. There should also be clear direction around mementos or spiritual items that family may want to pass to their loved one: Are they allowed or not? How should they be handled?

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Support two-way communication

If family members are not allowed to visit physically, care centers can support other ways loved ones can say last goodbyes, such as two-way video communication, or visual contact through a protective barrier, like a window.

Positive distraction

Personalized acoustics or comforting nature sounds can go a long way toward making a patient feel comfortable. Many of the makeshift hospitals that have been built to support COVID-19 patients are bare bones and don’t support elaborate sound systems. But headphones or bed speakers can work just as well. When patients are conscious, access to sunlight, nature, or images of nature can also be soothing.

Hospice caregivers

Dedicated hospice workers can manage the caring aspect of end-of-life care when resources across the system are under siege. Staff qualified to tend to very sick patients should remain in those designated areas.

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How to create a safe environment

Building dignity into end-of-life care is only part of the solution. Care facilities also have an imperative to prevent spreading the virus further. Here are some key considerations.

Medication access

Narcotic drugs should be securely stored but located so caregivers can reach them easily. The medication may be placed in a locked cabinet at a designated staff workstation near patient care areas, for instance.

Dedicated entry

For facilities that allow family members to say their final goodbyes in person, providing a dedicated entry to the space can reduce the chance of transmission. Mobile handwashing stations can also be provided throughout the facility. Donning and doffing zones should be established for any staff and family members entering or exiting the facility.

Staff accommodations

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Dedicated toilet rooms and respite areas can be provided for healthcare workers. The death of a patient can be difficult for even the most experienced caregivers and they, too, need space to process their pain.

Back-of-house access

When patients die, they should be removed discreetly from the facility, through a separate exit. This is not only to preserve their dignity and avoid frightening visitors and other patients. It’s the safest approach to prevent spreading the coronavirus.

None of these are new ideas in healthcare design, but as hospitals rush to treat legions of new COVID 19 patients, they have to embrace the reality that many patients will succumb to the virus and their families will suffer. There are ways to help ease that suffering in a compassionate way.

Erin Peavey and Sheila Ruder are architects at the Dallas-based firm HKS.

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