Four ways virtual reality can help us design and create better healthcare facilities

The creation of new healthcare facilities are always significant moments.

For health systems and their leaders, investing in new capital projects can be rare and costly, and the pressure to maximize ROI is high. For current and future patients, some of their most personal moments will occur inside these buildings and they deserve spaces that connect them to the best care and help them heal as best possible. Staff working in the facility require a building that allows them to perform at their highest level while also responding to their own personal health and wellness. Family members and visitors should step into buildings that inspire comfort and joy.

For these reasons and several others, it’s important health systems leverage every tool at their disposal to ensure success with their projects. Fortunately, virtual reality (VR) has quickly advanced from a buzzword to a real asset for healthcare leaders and designers - making it an important new tool. The technology’s ability to assure outcomes and reduce cost and risk can help ensure a stronger built environment for healthcare in the future.

While images of people wearing VR goggles may still seem a bit futuristic or fun, the advantages they can yield are serious. Here’s a look at four ways VR can strengthen the design of health facilities today and into the future, including:

A New Level of Feedback
Engaging stakeholders has always been a critical step in the design of new healthcare spaces. Being able to hear directly from patients and staff about what they need, prefer and hope for in their health environments always surfaces new ideas and opportunities. To date, our best methods of soliciting that feedback included group discussions, patient interviews, sharing images and trying to articulate how renderings and floor plans translate to built space.

All of these methods are still important, but they can be enhanced significantly with VR. Imagine being unsure about which of two possible patient room designs to include in a new hospital. Through VR, design teams can actually virtually embed patients and staff in these possibilities and document their experiences. Through such an effort, we can more accurately understand how the differences between the two room designs will affect them, and then be much more confident in our final selection. VR empowers this level of feedback and can apply to patient rooms, emergency departments, surgical suites, family waiting areas and other key spaces.

Essentially, VR knocks down communications barriers between building users and design teams, ensuring better decision-making and design solutions.

Assurance of Outcomes
Just as VR can strengthen communication between future building users and design teams, it can also help assure those investing capital in the project. It can be hard at times for building owners and leadership teams to look at sketches, floor plans and renderings and fully understand the future facility. VR models can alleviate this challenge as they allow stakeholders to experience the spaces during any and every phase of a project before it exists. Once virtually inside a model, stakeholders can understand different features of the building in new ways and establish a stronger sense of the spatial scale of key spaces and the building at large. This all leads to key questions answered earlier and stronger dialogue with design teams throughout the life of a project.

Leveraging this new opportunity helps stakeholders feel more confident they’re investing capital appropriately and driving toward a facility that will enhance their organization’s capabilities and mission.

Decision Making & Cost Control
Given the stronger communication VR fosters during the design and construction of a new hospital, it also accelerates decision-making and saves both time and costs. Every time a designer uses a VR model to show their client a new clinic and they can eliminate needing to create a new rendering or schedule a future meeting - they move a step closer toward delivering the project on schedule and on budget. While the creation of a VR model for a new ED project may require a few more resources up front, it absolutely pays higher dividends as a project progresses.

Building Brand & Excitement
Once health systems appreciate the serious potential of VR, there’s also nothing wrong with embracing the “cool factor” that comes with the technology. The creation of these facilities are huge moments that take time, and it’s important to always be driving excitement with local communities and key donors. VR can help build excitement about projects as the models and flythroughs generated can be sent to local media and/or posted on social media. One recent organization our team worked with shared a video of a VR model to their social media and earned 55,000+ views in just one week. While designers will always be fond of architectural sketches, we recognize they don’t usually build this kind of mainstream interest. VR definitely has a “cool factor” that can be leveraged to build excitement for projects before they open their doors and welcome their first patients.

Design teams have been excited about the potential of VR to engage clients and strengthen our work for years, and we’re now at a point where we can unleash the technology for exciting, positive results. When used the right way, VR can absolutely enhance our collective ability to create health facilities that offer the best possible experience for patients, staff and communities.

John McAllister is an awarding-winning designer for CannonDesign focused on how new technologies and processes can help achieve design excellence. He has delivered successful projects for numerous high-profile institutions including University of Southern Indiana, the University of Missouri system, Webster University, Northern Kentucky University, University of Minnesota and University of Louisville.

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