Published date: 20 September 2021

Why accessibility matters when it comes to the healthcare estate.

Rhea Horlock, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility for NHS Property Services, talks to National Health Executive about why accessibility matters in healthcare.

The original article was published in National Health Executive, you can read it here

Making the healthcare estate accessible

NHS Property Services (NHSPS) own and manage 10 per cent of the NHS estate across England. This includes over 3,000 properties, from small GP surgeries and care homes to large community hospitals and integrated health campuses. We exist to help the NHS get the most from its estate and ensure that it is consistently fit for purpose, so that healthcare professionals can deliver excellent patient care. Not only does this mean ensuring facilities are structurally sound, but also fit the needs of all patients, regardless of demographic or ability.

Each day, more than 6 million people pass through our properties. While most will attend an appointment or receive care, others may be visiting a friend or family member or heading to work. These people all have considerations to make upon entering our facilities, for example the length of their appointment, the room they need to find, and local transport links.

For many, these decisions are second nature, but for some people, feeling confident in visiting their local healthcare centre requires much more preparation and consideration - whether they will be able to get into the site to begin with, and if there is a wheelchair ramp or lift to get them to the right floor. Often overlooked, some individuals will need to consider how the toilets are laid out for access, or whether they will be able to speak with a receptionist due to height restrictions.

These considerations, and others like it, can result in anxiety about entering a facility and can in turn result in missed appointments and unpleasant patient experiences. Those decisions that so many of us take for granted can be daunting and stressful for others. By making considered changes to healthcare facilities from the ground up, we can encourage inclusivity across our health care system and build an environment where everyone has equal access.

In the Government’s UK Disability Survey published this June, almost half (46%) of disabled people noted being unable to access, or having difficulty accessing, medical facilities. What’s more, 78% of disabled people who had accessed health services had experienced at least some difficulties. This is an unacceptable and worrying statistic which we at NHSPS believe requires urgent action.

NHSPS recently conducted patient research to identify what patients think about the services in their local healthcare facility and to better understand how we can improve the patient experience. Our voice of the patient research showed that a fifth of those with a disability do not believe they can get around their facility easily. We acknowledge this as an area of concern and are determined to improve this experience.

NHSPS believes patients need to know what to expect when they come to our properties, to help reduce the anxiety associated with attending an appointment in new and sometimes inaccessible facilities. To address these concerns, we partnered with AccessAble over four years ago to provide accessibility information for our estate – more than 400 of our properties have online access guides to give people piece of mind before they visit us. These guides cover what the entrance routes will be like, what sort of parking is available, and how facilities are laid out. Each guide contains more than 1,000 pieces of information and we are proud to have supported over 19,000 people through these guides so far.

As well as producing the guides, we have also begun actively making improvements to our sites. Over the last two years, we have identified 30 sites where accessibility is an issue and have made changes to the properties to ensure easier access. These improvements range from minor works, such as installing handrails in a sloped corridor or automatic door sensors, to large investment projects to create step free access from street to site. We are continuing this work now and into the future, with a further 20 properties identified for improvement and an active programme of work to ensure we are making changes where they are most needed.

Moving forward, we have a responsibility to ensure that our facilities can be accessed by all. We have made a start, but we know there is more we can do for those who need alternative ways to get to, and access healthcare. Alongside providing facility information, we need to ensure we are actively improving the properties we look after, to make sure that all patients, visitors and employees can get in and around with ease, in the same way many of us take for granted. At NHSPS we remain committed to enabling excellent patient care and for many this starts before they enter our buildings.   

Find out more about our accessibility programme, here.