Healthcare providers increasingly turn to micro-hospitals to deliver quality care to their communities. These fully licensed, 24/7 facilities can help patients with myriad medical issues – including critical care – within a fraction of the space of their full-sized counterparts, typically less than 20,000 square feet.
After more than a decade of operational micro-hospitals, we’ve seen recurring themes in how providers adapt them to meet their evolving needs. We also had the privilege of recently conducting post-occupancy evaluations for two buildings. We offer these top findings as lessons and recommendations for sustaining the success of this healthcare delivery model.
Finding the Right Location
Micro-hospitals can offer convenient and accessible community care when strategically positioned relative to a greater healthcare system’s network. Many existing micro-hospitals are in relatively urban areas. Still, a micro-hospital could be located to reach underserved areas or to enter new markets, even if other providers are already present.
Despite a robust network of hospitals and clinics in the United States, many communities – especially economically disadvantaged and rural areas – lack adequate access to healthcare. Some healthcare systems see micro-hospitals as a solution and a mutually beneficial arrangement: the community gets access to nearby care, and the provider introduces new patients to their system with a relatively small investment. Also, higher-risk patients benefit from connecting to a specialty care network while receiving local, stabilizing, pre-treatment care.
Staffing is vital to this approach. As these facilities are introduced in underserved areas, the municipality and health system have a joint responsibility to foster strong relationships among their constituents and improve local amenities, making the region desirable to medical practitioners as a place to not only work but also live and be part of the community.
Other providers leverage their micro-hospitals to support a “spoke and hub” model of care. Staff triages incoming patients to determine the best care location based on patient needs, staffing and bed availability. This approach works well when assets like a robust network of physicians and access to ambulatory and acute care are already in place. It is also a valuable model for municipalities seeking to revitalize their city centers, as proximity to healthcare is critical in driving downtown living and business development.
Both approaches to locating micro-hospitals have typically assumed the facility will operate as a stand-alone service. But we’ve noticed a trend of using micro-hospitals as anchors for medical office buildings or specialty care services. Patient-centered care and patient satisfaction are enhanced through convenient access to pharmacies, laboratories, radiology departments, ambulatory surgery or specialty care. This allows the micro-hospital to remain true to its core model – lean and efficient – while being able to plug into other services.
Some healthcare systems integrate their micro-hospitals to support a “spoke and hub” delivery model, allowing them to transfer patients, if necessary, to main-hub hospitals or other in-network facilities that offer specialized services.
Integrating Specialty Care
Our healthcare clients increasingly ask for micro-hospitals with more integration and flexibility. They are rightfully concerned about licensing requirements, local patient population needs, and incorporating appropriate demographic specialty care components.
The challenge is meeting those requirements without forfeiting the efficiencies of the micro-hospital model. We often caution our clients from over-engineering or over-programming; the micro-hospitals do not need to meet every patient’s needs all the time. They will still be effective, as staff will attend to patients that require immediate care while stabilizing and transferring others as needed. Over-engineering these facilities can increase the break-even point, slow patient throughput, and hurt patient satisfaction and employee engagement.
If done strategically, it is possible to integrate specialty care while still realizing a micro-hospital’s benefits. For example, one client considered pairing cancer care with the traditional emergency department and inpatient model. With cancer care as a top revenue draw – and considering the distance from the main hospital – this made sense for the provider.
To integrate specialty care effectively and preserve the micro-hospital’s efficiency, healthcare systems should identify the specific components of care early in the building’s design process and review them with the local authority having jurisdiction over the project. The facility may require separate entries, clear identification of dedicated versus shared support areas and code-delineated smoke zones.
In our post-occupancy evaluation, we found it is better to offer radiology as both an inpatient and outpatient service. Radiology for inpatient service is required for licensing, but offering it for outpatient services will increase patient access and lead to a greater return on the high-investment imaging equipment. Future micro-hospital designs should maintain separate access pathways for each type of service to maintain efficiency and reassure patients that they are receiving the care they registered for in the appropriate location.
Supporting Staff and Cross-Training
Micro-hospitals are intended to operate on a lean and efficient staffing model where doctors, nurses, and aides cross-train to provide care to the maximum ability of their licenses. This is a functional approach as long as the staff still find value in their work. Often, burnout is not the result of staff doing too much work but rather from losing touch with the job they once loved.
We’ve heard from staff that they want more time at a patient’s bedside, which allows them to own the patient’s care from arrival to discharge. While it might seem counterintuitive, in a micro-hospital setting, one nurse should provide services ranging from meals to breathing treatments, all at the patient’s bedside. The variety of work counteracts nurse burnout and increases patient satisfaction by developing a deeper relationship with one caregiver.
The hospital’s design should support staff cross-training. A centrally located nurses’ station adjacent to the medication room, lab and storage areas allows staff to help the emergency and inpatient departments during low census counts. At busier times, when both departments may have dedicated teams, the station encourages communication between them so that staff can assist each other.
A centralized nurses’ station allows staff to see what’s happening around them and ultimately deliver better care. We learned from our post-occupancy evaluation that inpatient waiting rooms must be within view of, and ideally adjacent to, the station so nurses can oversee and communicate easily with family members.
Placing the nurses’ station and other support spaces in the center of the micro-hospital makes it easier for staff to respond to patients in all departments.
Incubators for New Ideas and Systems
There is little doubt that micro-hospitals will continue to adopt more technology, and the patient experience will become more virtual. Many providers are leaning into their micro-hospitals as technology incubators because it is easier and more cost-effective to test new technology and workflows in a 10-bed rather than a 100-bed facility.
For example, consider how micro-hospitals might embrace a new registration and check-in experience. Today, patients walk into an emergency department, and the first person they see is likely a receptionist. In the future, this position will be handled by an automated kiosk that scans the patient’s identification and directs them to the appropriate waiting area. Or they may bypass the kiosk altogether; instead, there might be an automated secure door system with advanced wayfinding to support patient self-rooming. The point is that providers are much more likely to try this technology on the micro-hospital scale – with minimal investment – before implementing it in their larger facilities.
Micro-hospitals are also apt testing grounds for improved mechanical systems. We learned from our post-occupancy evaluation that more rooms should have systems that can flex to negative pressure, allowing maintenance staff to respond to potential future pandemics without re-tooling mechanical equipment.
Micro-hospitals have a bright future. The model has become increasingly attractive to healthcare systems and patients due to rising construction and healthcare costs. As we continuously look to improve the state of healthcare in our country – whether through enhanced access to care, better support for staff, or new technology – micro-hospitals are fertile ground to test and implement ideas in an already innovative and efficient model.