Sir James Dyson’s latest project: Cleaning up hospitals

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Doctors are hailing the revamp of a Bath neonatal unit, where babies sleep more and feed better, as the model for patient care

“There was something angelic about the way the nurse was stood as we entered the ward,” says Chris Dobson looking down at his son Sebastian, cradled in his mother’s arms.

The couple hadn’t been sure that their child – who was born 12 weeks prematurely and contracted a potentially life-threatening gastrointestinal infection – would survive. “It was touch and go for a couple of days,” Chris says. “But I remember it was the way the nurses hands were folded and something about the lights, the mood, the space, it all helped us to cope.”

Hearing a hospital ward described in such reverential terms may surprise anyone who has ever spent time in one as a patient. But the new unit at the Royal United Hospital (RUH) in Bath has been touched – if not by the hand of God – then by the hand of Dyson. The billionaire industrial-designer, Sir James Dyson, who revolutionised the vacuum cleaner and the hand dryer, has turned his attention to patient care with a £6.1m revamp of the West Country hospital’s neonatal ward.

A new report into the unit, which Bath-born Dyson helped to fund and design, has found health benefits both for babies and the anxious parents whose newborns often battle for survival in those very rooms. 

Although still in the process of peer review, the report, which was conducted by a dozen doctors, has startled many working in the medical profession. If the findings are substantiated, it is a model that could be adopted in hospitals around the world.

So how does good design make for happier babies?

The report found the amount of time mothers spent breast-feeding had increased from 64 per cent to 90 per cent by comparing data collected from the old neonatal ward at RUH to the new one, built in 2011.

By reducing noise levels, the low-stress environment is also said to have increased the amount of time babies slept by an an average of 22 per cent, whilst nurses are said to be spending roughly 20 per cent more time with their patients than they were previously, due to the consideration given to the ward’s layout.

Dr Bernie Marden, a consultant neonatologist and paediatrician, said a number of factors, from allowing natural light to a new “progressive layout”, has produced remarkable results. “We collated vast amounts of data using new techniques to build up a really accurate picture of how babies respond to their environment. We found the design of the building is leading to better fed and better rested babies – it’s contributing to their recuperation.” 

Dr Marden said that by building the ward with a clockwise circuit of cot rooms, starting with intensive care, leading to special care and finally ending up in a room designed to look more like a home, creates a psychological effect of development and health improvement.  

The first thing that strikes you when you enter the neonatal ward is the silence. The calm lends the ward a tranquility more commonly associated with a health spa rather than a six-million-pound state-of–the-art hospital wing, designed to treat the most vulnerable.

The large paintings (by Dyson’s wife, Deirdre Dyson), the peace garden and the Austrian-Spruce wooden paneling give the building a Scandinavian feel. By placing miniature, wireless accelerometers on babies’ nappies – devices that normally measure the acceleration and breathing of athletes – doctors were able to measure babies’ sleeping and waking cycles, the first time this had been done.

The analysis found natural light, coupled with noise levels which were reduced from an average of 65 decibels to 55, allowed more sleep for the infants.

Staff were also fitted with tracking devices to investigate their efficiency. Again, results proved to be positive: the report noted the time nurses spent with their patients had risen by 20 per cent.  Staff also had their stress levels monitored by determining cortisol levels from hair samples, which experts are now looking at ways to reduce.

Although Dr Marden admits the long-term benefits are much more difficult to predict, other hospitals will be scrutinising RUH’s reforms

Dyson himself had first-hand experience of anxious weeks spent in neonatal wards when his son Jacob was born. He said this reason was partly why he got involved with the fundraising. He has now just announced a £4m donation towards the construction of a new cancer centre at the hospital.

Talking to The Independent, Dyson said: “The old wards were really old hospital wards. Some of them were Nissen-hut type arrangements. Of course everyone has tried incredibly hard to improve them but there was a terrible lack of space. It just wasn’t an environment conducive to good medical care or a nice place to be for lots of hours.

“When our own son was born, he was six weeks premature and his lungs didn’t open, so he went blue. He was put into the first incubator they had, which was actually to deal with jaundice, and he was in that for a couple of weeks. He looked like a skinned pigeon in his incubator – one felt the fragility of life.”

The neo-natal ward’s apparent success comes as other wards at the RUH are under pressure to improve. In March this year an investigation by the Care Quality Commission found the hospital was not meeting essential targets. The report found patients were not receiving the care they needed due to staff being too busy. It also found it had difficulty coping with patient volumes. In one case, the hospital had been using a day-care unit to accommodate inpatients when it was not designed to meet those people’s needs.

“The RUH has come into criticism in the past but it’s wonderful to see the current management raising so much money,” said Dyson. “My dad died of lung cancer when I was nine and then tragically my mother died of liver cancer in her early 50s.  We’ve seen at first-hand how vicious the disease is So it just seemed a wonderful thing to help make happen.”

Unconventional treatment aiding doctors

Silver-lined pyjamas

Designed with thin silver thread running through the material, the nightwear is worn to help prevent the spread of MRSA. Silver, known for its infection-fighting properties, is intended to act as a “fly swatter” for any harmful bacteria. Some were sceptical about how beneficial the garments were when they were introduced in 2007, and the idea hasn’t taken hospitals by storm, but the pyjamas are still being sold, particularly for young children.

Robotic surgery

 New Cross Hospital, Wolverhampton, carried out the first robotic open-heart operation in Britain using the “Da Vinci” robot last October. Surgeons see the heart through a camera, and where they would usually cut the breast plate, the robotic arms are fed through cuts in the ribs, meaning less risk and pain. The downside? Each of the four arms cost £2,000, and have to be replaced after 10 operations.

Gerard Brand

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