Forget telehealth. The future of medicine could be drive-through doctors
Could drive-through clinics make medical care safer—and help hospitals offset the $50 billion they’re losing each month during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Architecture firm NBBJ has come up with a new concept that could reduce the risk of contamination for patients visiting hospitals: a drive-through medical clinic.
While there have been plenty of drive-through testing facilities for those exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, a full care unit where doctors can treat patients in their cars is new. NBBJ—whose recent projects include Tencent’s new headquarters in Shenzhen, China, and buildings for the NYU Langone medical system—calls it The In Car Care Unit. And it has already drawn interest from two hospital clients in the Northeast.
“COVID is keeping many people from going to the hospital,” says NBBJ partner Ryan Hullinger. “We’re looking for ways to make hospital clinics safer [and give patients] an environment [they think of] as safe, so they’re willing to come back and get the care that they need.”
The drive-through clinic is conceived to be a midway point between telehealth, where doctors might miss critical symptoms, and physical clinic visits. It’s designed to be easily deployed in hospital parking garages and would take up 60 feet of space—the amount of space between two columns in a hospital parking lot. Hullinger says that components of the unit could be prefabricated elsewhere and installed quickly at the site, kind of like Ikea furniture.
“We thought about three different ways of building this, and each would have a different price point and a different speed of delivery,” he says. “The most expensive version is the most permanent with walls and a roof. The second version is just the walls, with a parking garage providing the roof. The third version has what we call soft walls and roof that’s [made of] tented construction on a parking lot—that’s the fastest [to build], the most flexible, and the lowest initial cost.” Hullinger says, adding that all three options would still cost less than building a new clinic in a hospital building.
The drive-through clinics wouldn’t be limited to COVID-19 patients. NBBJ says they would be particularly useful for treating patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes and more common ailments like the flu. The clinic’s proximity to a hospital or larger clinic would allow patients to be taken in, if their condition is serious. The setup would also benefit parents with young children, who can remain in car seats, and elderly patients who might have mobility issues and trouble accessing telehealth services.
The main draw according to Hullinger, is the fact that patients wouldn’t have to enter a hospital, unless they absolutely had to. “All the waiting room activities that you would normally do in a hospital can be moved into your car, so you wouldn’t have to enter a new space, which some perceive to be more dangerous at this time,” Hullinger says.
NBBJ adopted a “service bay” approach rather than a traditional drive-through model. In the concept, cars fit into partitioned spaces. Caregivers would walk up to each car, rather than reach through a drive-through window, and treat patients directly through car windows or car doors, and treat them for many common ailments that people go to urgent care for.
And while the focus of the concept is on helping patients, drive-through care units could also ease the economic burden on U.S. hospitals and healthcare clinics, which are losing an estimated $50 billion per month as customers stay away to avoid catching the novel coronavirus, leading to staff layoffs and patients delaying necessary healthcare treatments. It might sound outlandish, but so did drive-through testing facilities when they first appeared. And NBBJ isn’t the only one thinking about this. Some healthcare institutions are looking into buying fast-food restaurants to accommodate a similar idea.