Briefing recommends NHS estates review

By Jo Makosinski | Published: 12-Jan-2023

Nuffield Trust report calls for 'national stocktake' of the hospital estate in preparation for any future pandemic

A Nuffield Trust briefing has recommended a ‘national stocktake’ of the shortcomings of hospital estates in preparation for any future pandemics.

The briefing, entitled Overlooked but not overcome: smaller hospitals and the staff response to the COVID-19 pandemic, reviewed the response in the context of smaller hospitals, although the problems discussed are equally applicable to many of the large acute sites.

It highlighted estates-related problems, alongside issues around staff redeployment, communication, management, and insufficient support for staff, including their mental health and wellbeing.

The all-too-familiar problems of ventilation and oxygen supply within an ageing estate, often necessitating the redesign of wards or relocation of patients while implementing infection control protocols, also inevitably caused problems.

The authors of the briefing state: “Problems with estates actually drove, and constrained, the pandemic response.”

As well as the recommended ‘national stocktake’, the briefing says the Government’s Health Infrastructure Plan needs to be reviewed in light of the pandemic, with a view to ensuring robust supplies of oxygen, adequate ventilation, and appropriate infection control measures in all hospitals, not just planned new builds.

Working with Archus, Nuffield Trust is now conducting further research for the New Hospitals Programme, which it says should be incorporated into Health Building Notes and Technical Memoranda to inform future estates development.

This should include lessons for areas not covered by Health Building Notes, such as staff facilities.

An ongoing struggle

Related to the issues of estates and buildings, most organisations struggled with bed capacity in all clinical areas, even prior to the pandemic, the research found.

It is essential, therefore, that the capacity of smaller hospitals meets their current need, particularly with regard to intensive care provision, as well as considering how surge capacity can be embedded within organisations.

The briefing recommends this may include upgrading non-clinical spaces so they can be used to safely bed patients during an emergency, through provision of spaces large enough for beds in cubicled areas, such as outpatients, oxygen in non-clinical spaces along with sufficient toilet and bathroom facilities. In addition, thought should be given to how operating theatre, recovery, and other similar spaces can be kitted out as ‘shadow’ ICUs.

Other issues that the authors conclude require more attention are:

  • Disaster planning. No hospital had disaster plans for a prolonged, non-influenza pandemic, and all failed to plan for a second wave that may be worse than the first. Templates for local responses to major disasters, developed by experts, would relieve smaller organisations of tasks for which they may not have the appropriate staff, skills, or experience
  • Management. No organisation felt every aspect of their management and communication was entirely right. Failure to recognise that different stages of the pandemic would require different approaches was the most pervasive issue, alongside the extent to which organisations were able to put in place managerial structures that were robust, responsive, and capable of making short-term/tactical and long-term/strategic decisions. Improving the situational awareness of executive teams would be beneficial. Aspects of the streamlined process and speedier decision-making introduced during the pandemic should be retained, while ensuring quality controls and good governance
  • Difficult behaviour. This is able to disrupt the pandemic response. Questions over who is responsible for the management of staff and to what extent staff can be compelled need to be explored at national and local levels, including determining the appropriate response
  • Mental health and wellbeing. Although all organisations took this seriously, the briefing notes the levels of distress shown from the cohort of interviewees was unexpected. This suggests that the resources put in place to support the emotional health and mental wellbeing of senior managers is inadequate and needs to be addressed urgently at local and national levels

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