How the Connected World is Converging for Healthcare

The convergence of healthcare, pharma and academia has been taking place over the past several years, fueled by a connectivity trend that is changing the way those industries approach their facilities.

The expansion and potential benefits within the connected world requires a built environment that can adapt and accommodate the growth. It requires innovative ways to serve and bring together healthcare, pharmaceutical and academic organizations, but faces challenges caused by limited resources and uncertainty surrounding the future of this technology.

“Innovation can be expensive, and most clients prefer to spend more of their budget on familiar equipment,” said Michael Connor, WSP senior vice president and managing director of the Atlanta buildings practice. “Clients want a facility that supports these advances, but at the lowest cost, as it represents investment with no guarantee of payoff.”

Providing building envelopes and mechanical-electrical-plumbing (MEP) systems that can support new technologies requires an understanding for creative uses of off-the-shelf systems that are more budget friendly than resorting to customized options. It’s also important that connected technology are more than just an afterthought in the planning process.

“These facilities for academia and hospitals are often placed in ‘leftover’ spaces; something on the order of 1,500 to 3,000 square feet,” Connor said. “As such, they have limited space for operations, making it difficult to locate supporting spaces for required mechanical equipment, which usually needs as much space as the program area. Most of these projects are being created in re-purposed facilities, so adaptive reuse is a large factor from a sustainability perspective.”

Creating simple, yet safe, solutions within a budget also requires educating clients on how they can write standard operating procedures and safety protocols to adapt and thrive in a connected world. Assisting in the preparation of supporting materials for a successful academic grant application can also help cover facility expenses and lead to a lab renovation or a new building.

Connectivity changes have been driven by the healthcare industry and by public demand for innovations that provide greater convenience and lower healthcare costs.

Social Implications

Connectivity changes have been largely driven by the healthcare industry, as its overall goal is to bring care closer to a patient through advanced, portable technologies that can be found next to a patient’s room. It is also driven by public demand for innovations that lower healthcare costs, that help avoid lengthy hospital stays and obtain medicines targeted for their exact illness.

“The social implications of these developments are huge, and the dissemination of accurate and useful information grows more critical, as more people reach out to social networks to obtain information about whatever health issue they may have,” said Nolan Rome, WSP senior vice president and leader of the U.S. healthcare practice. “This is the greatest example of how today’s generation is pushing change in the healthcare landscape compared to ‘Baby Boomers’, who are more inclined to accept what the doctor recommends, or maybe talk to one other person in private.”

But reaching that level of innovation first requires costly investment into research and development.

“Pharmaceutical companies want to share the risks and cost of drug development with academia, and academia sees the financial benefits of this relationship when a drug that will improve patient health is discovered and introduced,” Rome said. “The hope is that this relationship will speed up the drug discovery process.”

One of the best examples of how technology is changing the healthcare, pharma and academic industries is through personal smart phone and smart watch technology.

Cool Technology

Recent successes demonstrate the importance of a robust connected environment in healthcare, pharma and academics, which grows with every passing day, as technology brings people closer to their own health needs and awareness.

“One of the best examples of how technology is changing the healthcare, pharma and academic industries is through personal smart phone technology,” said Daniel Smith, WSP vice president. “Devices we can attach to our phones can do so many things—continuous EKG through a smart phone watch band, blood glucose monitoring, diagnosis of ear infections, and even detect early signs of oral cancer. It seems like every month, more new devices are coming out.”

Continuous personal EKG technology is one of the most widely adopted examples of this increased connectivity. “Through sensors in a watch band, your heart rhythm is captured and transmitted to your paired smart phone, which can store the data and send it on to your doctor electronically,” Smith said. “That’s cool.” Healthcare professionals can now use diagnostic tools to sequence the genome of known diseases such as cancer and HIV, then customize treatment to that patient’s needs.

“These are emerging technologies and as such require new or re-purposed skill sets to serve the industry beyond just designing the facility,” Connor said.

Clients who envision a better society through advances in science and technology are finding a like-minded partner in WSP. Through its Future Ready™ program, WSP is bringing clarity and vision to many of the complex challenges these clients face by looking beyond the world as it is today to anticipate the growth and technology that they will need to be able to support in the future.

Success involves a convergence of different mindsets and experiences found in the pharma, academia and healthcare industries, and use it to customize patient treatment. 

Opportunities for Innovation

One example of a repurposed skill is found in the transition from commissioning engineering – which ensures that projects are properly designed, installed, tested and maintained – to validation engineering, which is used to test the systems that will develop and manufacture pharmaceuticals to ensure the quality of those products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviews validation documentation to determine if a facility should be licensed to manufacture a bio-therapy or medical device.

“In some cases, organizations believe that the certain regulations don’t apply to them, since we are talking about small operations,” Smith said. “They erroneously believe these regulations only apply to big pharma companies.”

WSP’s expertise in healthcare and science and technology engineering includes extensive work in FDA-regulated facilities, providing insights on government regulations that are not always fully understood by healthcare or academic clients.

“We often share horror stories with our clients during the planning state, reminding them that an FDA inspector carries the full authority of a U.S. marshal,” Connor added. “Operators who have failed to comply have been led away in handcuffs and their production facilities pad locked.”

“Success involves a convergence of mindsets and experiences in the different industries – pharma, academia and healthcare,” Rome said. “We are finding solutions that are cost effective and can pass FDA inspection; it is within these challenges where the opportunities for innovation are discovered.”

Education is Key

One example where academia benefits from improved connectivity with pharma is the Georgia Tech cell manufacturing facility in Atlanta, where WSP provided MEP engineering services. Completed in June 2018, this laboratory facilitates the manufacture of cells for cell therapies, engineered tissues, medical devices, drug discovery and chip models used to simulate organ systems.

“The advances in synthetic cell manufacturing in the last 2 to 3 years is astounding,” Rome said. “This facility can create spray-on cells, among many other things. This is perfect for burn victims and the way they make the cells, there is no chance of rejection by the patient.”

The education challenge includes architectural clients.

“Like lab planning, the planning of a facility that manufactures a biological product – even in small amounts – is a scientific skill set typically not found in architecture firms,” Smith said. “Once you explain the drivers behind the convergence, people begin to understand; but this occurs on nearly a one-on-one basis.”

But when that understanding among all stakeholders is reached, it can lead to very satisfying results.

“Personally, there is no other industry as rewarding as the life science industry,” Connor said. “Helping people overcome debilitating diseases by helping our clients to research and develop those cures is immensely rewarding.”

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