Early results from our 2016 Hospital Construction Survey, which closes this Friday, shows that behavioral health is the No. 1 focus for specialty hospital construction projects going into the new year.

Last year, 21 percent of our survey's respondents said they had behavioral health projects on the boards, putting it at No. 2 on the list. Children's hospitals (23 percent) took the top spot. If behavioral health moves into the No. 1 spot for 2016, it could mean that health systems are paying attention to and addressing the nation's mental health care disparities.

According to the American Hospital Association (AHA), one in four Americans experiences a mental illness or substance abuse disorder each year. However, the association also says there are barriers to ensuring access to care for behavioral health patients.

The AHA states that 55 percent of U.S. counties have no practicing psychiatrists and "only 27 percent of community hospitals have an organized, inpatient psychiatric unit, while state and county psychiatric hospitals are closing due to state budget and other funding constraints."

Kaiser Permanente recently announced that it will invest more than $115 million to renovate at least 76 of its existing mental health facilities. It also plans to add 10 new behavioral health clinics in the next 3.5 years. The construction strategy corresponds with Kaiser's commitment to add 354 mental health therapists to its staff. 

John Kouletsis, vice president of facilities, planning and design, says the projects will focus a great deal on atmosphere.

"The refresh and remodel includes anything and everything we need to do to our existing clinics to create a transformative experience," Kouletsis says. "We don't think most of the facilities need to be remodeled because the workflow, the efficiency and safety of the units are already great. It involves mostly changing the look and the feel and not the actual construction."

Kaiser's approach reflects what others in health care construction are doing. In "Building Behavioral Health Facilities," writer Amy Eagle discusses how today's behavioral health facilities are infusing healing into the fabric of their projects. Open layouts, elements that promote comfort and safety and natural light are helping "patients to feel at ease, comfortable and receptive to treatment."

As more health systems develop their behavioral health portfolios, it's important that the goal remains not just to build more, but to build spaces optimized for patient healing.


View survey results