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Tue September 21 2021

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Could empty department stores be repurposed for healthcare?

31 Aug Ideas of bringing hospitals back to town centres – simultaneously making them more accessible and reviving dying high streets – are gaining traction thanks to a high-profile competition calling for new approaches to healthcare.

There is a proposal for the former Debenhams store in Sheffield to be repurposed for healthcare. Image from Google Streetview.
There is a proposal for the former Debenhams store in Sheffield to be repurposed for healthcare. Image from Google Streetview.

The owner of the Next retail empire is offering £250,000 for planning and design ideas that will ‘radically improve’ hospital care in the UK and around the world – and five ideas have now been shortlisted.

Entrants to the 2021 Wolfson Economics Prize were invited  to submit up to 10,000 words in response to the question: How would you design and plan new hospitals to radically improve patient experiences, clinical outcomes, staff wellbeing and integration with wider health and social care?

Four of the five shortlisted entries propose innovations in hospital design: one draws upon neuroscience and the symmetry and shapes found in nature; a hub and spoke ‘starfish’ design; a reimagining of the emergency department with first class airline-style pods for patients with less serious conditions; and a proposal, put simply, to have lots of trees and shrubbery around the place.

However, one of the shortlisted ideas takes an entirely different approach. Called The Well Placed Hospital, it is a plan to “bring the hospital back into the town” to better serve the local community.

Another entrant along similar lines, called The High Street Hospital Model, proposes to repurpose vacant major retail stores in cities and towns as outpatient and diagnostic hubs – using Sheffield and its former Debenhams store as a test case. This proposal, from consulting engineer Arup, supported by Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, Sheffield Hallam University and Sheffield City Council, was not shortlisted but given a Light Bulb Award, recognising originality and particularly innovative ideas contained within submissions.

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Some towns are already seeing empty high street stores converting to healthcare use. The former Laura Ashley store in Maidstone's Fremlin Walk, for example, is now an NHS Covid-19 vaccination clinic.

Simon Woolfson, sponsor of the award, said: “Many of us will have witnessed hospitals that are labyrinthine, out of date or that simply can’t cope with demand. All too often the result is an experience that is confusing, unnerving and uncomfortable, for patients and staff alike. The simple fact is that our hospitals desperately need the £3.7bn that the government plans to invest in new infrastructure.

“But more important than the amount spent will be the quality and ambition of the infrastructure delivered. The risk is that we simply build slightly better versions of what is already there, ignoring the possibilities, new technologies and architectural lessons that humanity has learnt over the past 30 years.”

The winner of the £250,000 prize will be revealed in November.

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