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Aladin Niazmand

The significance of high-functioning healthcare design was realized after the recent pandemic. It became very evident that healthcare architecture had to be reconsidered and transformed completely to better tackle any similar pandemics in the future. The existing healthcare architecture did absorb some of the shocks from the pandemic, but it had to be enhanced in order to be highly efficient and deliver much more.

Considering this need, one of UAE’s top healthcare leaders stepped up to meet it. Aladin Niazmand, the Managing Director of TAHPI, has been coherently delivering on the healthcare architecture front for the wellbeing of mankind.

In the following interview, Mr. Niazmand shares his vision for the company and how it is currently positioned as one of the top organizations in the healthcare architecture and planning space. 

Give us a brief overview of your journey at TAHPI and tell us what inspired you to venture into the healthcare architecture and planning niche. 

UAE had very few if any, companies that exclusively specialized in Healthcare Planning and Design, hence, the entry of TAHPI. Having a company exclusively specializing in all aspects of Health Planning and Design in the UAE healthcare market in 2008 was a breakthrough in itself. Till then, typically, general-practice Architectural/ Engineering firms provided Health Facility Design services along with other building types such as commercial, retail, and residential.

However, Healthcare is too important to be regarded as a short-term Real Estate Development. It is too complex to be planned and designed by general-practice consultants by merely seeking opinions from Doctors and Nurses. The results can be disastrous. Typically, there is no time to learn on the job every time, then waste that depth of understanding after every facility is completed. According to our International experience, understanding the complexities of delivering healthcare projects requires specialized skills, proven and repeatable methodology.

We soon became a brand known to all, in our first year of operation in the UAE, for being the one-stop-shop for A-to-Z of in-house healthcare consultancy services such as Clinical Service Planning, Feasibility Studies, Briefing, Master Planning, Architectural Design, Medical Planning, Interior Design, Equipment Planning, etc.

Furthermore, we are the author and publisher of the popular, open-sourced International Health Facility Guidelines (iHFG) that provides comprehensive ready-to-use briefing and design guidelines of all types of healthcare facilities around the world. We have prepared the standards and guidelines for healthcare planning and design for nine other Health Authorities around the world and within the GCC, including Dubai and KSA (CBAHI).

We have a significant software development department creating tools and techniques to automate many of the processes required in healthcare procurement. The software platform is entirely web-based and is offered to the world on a subscription basis. Currently, there are close to 8000 hospitals on the system.

The first major breakthrough in the UAE came through as a result of discussions at a high level with the Health Authority of Abu Dhabi HAAD. I presented a vision to the CEO for a rational, scientific framework for healthcare planning at a city scale and the role of HAAD in collaboration with us. I offered to prepare the foundations for Health Service Planning based on Supply, Demand, and Gap.

I also proposed a new generation of Health Facility Guidelines according to the IHFG structure, generated on the HFBS platform and hosted on a dedicated free website. The material in those guidelines would be regionally specific, pre-approved, and ready-to-use. It would provide examples to follow rather than simply list prohibited practices and non-compliances.

The service Planning components of that vision would create a single canvas for planning and mapping of the future of healthcare over 20 years. The vision was to give away the results to the market for free and update it regularly. That would encourage investment without duplication in just the right areas and specialties.

Later we went on to do the same for Dubai Health Authority, with extensive industry consultation and great support from the DHA, which is continuing to this day.

We partnered with KEF Holdings, a UAE-based multinational holding company that specializes in innovative offsite construction technology, in 2015. KEF-TAHPI launched the ‘hospitals in a catalog’ at Arab Health 2016, which truly revolutionized healthcare infrastructure. This is the magic of the Industrial Revolution which has worked in all other industries.

According to my opinion, “Access to good hospitals and healthcare facilities is a basic human right that countries are striving to provide for citizens.” However, demand from increasing populations in the Middle East and India far outstrips the supply of durable, affordable, quality infrastructure. The traditional methods of one-off design and hand-made buildings can no longer serve the healthcare industry as they did in the past. Innovation at an industrial scale was required, and we were happy to provide the tools as well as the practical leadership.

The first example of the KEF-TAHPI collaboration was Meitra Hospital, designed in Dubai specifically for 80% off-side prefabrication. This five storeys 230-bed specialized hospital has won 3 awards since 2017, including best innovation, best design, and the best brand.

Giving examples, however, was not sufficient. The industry had to be brought along the journey. I went on to launch short certification courses in collaboration with UOWD and DHCC in Dubai, which offered highly methodical Health Planning to the current and future industry leaders in the Public and Private sectors.

These courses provided healthcare management and design professionals with the knowledge, skills, and practical experience required to take on specialized planning roles in one of the UAE’s fastest-growing sectors. The programs on Health Service Planning and Health Facility Planning were the first of their kind in the MENA region and continue to this day. 

Tell us more about TAHPI, its vision, and the key aspects of its stronghold in the global healthcare industry.  

Global business comes with unique challenges but can be an opportunity for enormous organizational growth.

We started as the international branch network of HPI (Health Projects International) from Sydney, Australia. Our first international office was in Kuala Lumpur 12 years ago. At this time, we have ten international offices in Australia, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Oman, Qatar, India, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the UK, and Ghana. We also have nine JV offices covering the world. We have consistently added an average of two countries to our development network each year.

We use a variety of techniques with common themes. At the core is TAHPI brand recognition which is achieved by two unique service offerings with immediate effect on the entire target country, Healthcare Capacity Planning at a country scale and Health Facility Guidelines. We become the creator of the information, whilst the healthcare industry is the consumer of that information. The outcome is customized according to the culture, law, expectations, and local needs.

Our achievements and recognitions:

  • Hospital Build Aware for Health Facility Guidelines, Abu Dhabi, UAE, 2012
  • Export Awards for Health and Biotechnology, State and National, Australia, 2014
  • IABCA Award – India Australia Business & Community Awards, 2016
  • Health Techon – Innovative Idea Award, 2016 & Innovative Technology Award, 2016
  • Six Sigma Health Awards for the Best Hospital Design for Meitra Hospital, 2017
  • Export Awards Finalist in Health and Biotechnology, Australia 2017
  • Best Hospital Design award, Meitra Hospital, India, 2017
  • IABCA Award – India Australia Business & Community Awards, 2018
  • Export Awards Finalist in Health and Biotechnology, Australia 2018
  • Best Brand Award for Meitra Hospital, 2018

From a leadership perspective, what is your opinion on the impact of the pandemic on the global healthcare sector, and how did you aid your organization to overcome the challenges rooting from the pandemic? 

The pandemic highlighted the importance of preparation and the systematic approach. It showed conclusively that healthcare is more than a few examples of excellent hospitals. Healthcare is a country-wide system, a network, and a massive logistics operation.

Even countries that had good examples of hospitals failed badly in response to the pandemic due to the lack of preparation at a country scale. 

We noticed that the web was suddenly full of well-meaning solutions for the pandemic. There were many urgent and temporary facilities being proposed for covid treatment. However, even a quick and random look at these indicated major flaws in such initiatives, which could potentially result in worsening the situation. This was typically due to a misunderstanding of the principles of isolation, infection control, and risk minimization.

Thankfully, the health authorities in the GCC did a lot better than many of their counterparts around the world due to fast action and careful consideration. We made our own contribution by offering five models of covid-ready treatment facilities at no cost on our website. Furthermore, we provided free, worldwide technical support for any healthcare provider or consultant who needed guidance on isolation facilities.

We are seen by the industry as a major author of standards and guidelines for healthcare planning and design. The demand for our services and reliance on our advice grew during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has impacted not only public health but also the global economy due to reduced productivity, trade disruption, the decimation of the tourism/airline industry, and work from home regimes. Businesses of all types and sizes were impacted by the pandemic, often unable to pay others. This resulted in a severe contraction of the consultancy field.

During the first half of 2020, we were hit by this contraction like most other businesses. However, in late 2020 and particularly 2021, the industry re-discovered the importance of healthcare investment as a long-term, future-proof segment of the economy. The impact of this can be seen in the numerous proposals for the conversion of other building types such as hotels into hospitals. As of early 2021, we are as busy with new projects as we have ever been.

What efforts did you and your team at TAHPI take during the pandemic to sustain operations and ensure the safety of your employees at the same time? 

The outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020 was certainly unprecedented and has disrupted the operations of most industries. The degree of disruption is dependent on the nature of the business activity. Several industries had to undergo transformational change. For e.g., the educational industry had to shift the mode of delivery from the conventional in-class to online platforms. Our own educational courses, which were delivered in person until the pandemic, are now run online.

However, other industries like architectural & engineering consultancies such as ours had to undergo adaptive changes such as switching to remote working/meetings to adapt and follow the protocols set by the government authorities of respective countries.

Since there was no past experience or pre-set system or protocols for operations during a pandemic, we battled the situation as ‘one team,’ involving the staff in key decision-making processes. Our offices in all nine countries followed closely and strictly the regulations issued by the health/government authorities of respective countries. During the lockdown period, we ensured that the staff was provided with the necessary setup (IT devices, Software, and VPN access, etc.) at their homes, enabling them to deliver output in an efficient manner remotely.

Periodic team meetings were held whenever a suboptimal or dysfunctional way of operation was identified, where the team was encouraged to spot inefficiencies from their perspective, thereby creating an environment of cognitive conflict. This proved to be successful in delivering optimal results from the employees.

As the restrictions eased, we resumed operations from the offices in respective countries by following the guidelines issued by the health authorities. Working from the office has the benefit of positive peer pressure, keeping the efficiency up and collaboration tight. We, in no instance, compromised the safety of our employees.

We extended work from home arrangements to staff, who declared their existing medical conditions with supporting medical documents showing a higher risk. The same was extended to staff who self-declared as sick even with minor symptoms. Strict adherence to these guidelines and more, instilling the right behavior among employees, created a safe and healthy working environment at our offices, thereby resulting in almost normal productivity.

In your opinion, what could be the future of the healthcare architecture and planning sector post the pandemic? And how are you strategizing your organization’s operations for that future?

Healthcare Design for the future needs to assume that pandemics such as COVID-19 will be commonplace. There will be a version of covid almost every year in the same manner as the seasonal flu. New standards and guidelines will be written and adopted by the health authorities to optimize the future healthcare facilities in preparation for future pandemics. We were already writing these guidelines and implementing them ahead of time.

  1. Our growth into additional countries will continue at the rate of two countries per annum. The current focus is on Africa and Eastern Europe. We will export our skills, methodologies, tools, and guidelines to more countries and establish further local collaborations and JV partnerships. All such work can be done remotely, as is the nature of knowledge transfer.
  2. We will focus to a greater degree on hospital commissioning services, taking an (almost) completed building to the point of operation, receiving, and treating patients safely. This will also prepare the facilities for operating under an evolving pandemic that may be with us for many years.
  3. Our educational courses will be expanded to include commissioning and equipment planning, in addition to the current planning and design subjects. All courses will be online. There will be both live interactive courses and recorded courses to suit the circumstances. We will establish partnerships with several institutes of architects in the Middle East and Africa in order to jointly deliver the online courses to their members who wish to be specialized in Healthcare Design.

We discovered that during the pandemic, with many consultants working from home or temporarily unemployed, they decided to improve their knowledge and prospects for advancement and job security. We expect that this phenomenon will continue.

Our next plan is to also have our Health Facility Planning course delivered as Massive Open Online Class (MOOC), removing the limitations of not only space but also time. The objective behind this is to pass the baton of knowledge gained through practical experience over the years from one generation to the next, at almost no cost at all.

If given a chance, what is the one thing that you would change about the healthcare architecture and planning space?

We see the increasing industrialization of the healthcare design industry. Within ten years, we believe the idea of custom-designing every part of a major healthcare facility will seem illogical and laughable. It will be seen in the same way as someone trying to create a transportation industry by designing and building each car individually for the linking of its passengers.

The innovation in design will be at a large scale, propagated through standard components that everyone else will adopt and plug into their master plans. This will be similar to the way the IT industry works, with different companies using the same components, often from their own competitors, to create excellent products efficiently and economically.

So, we see the re-definition of innovation to be at a larger scale, not remaining at a boutique scale.

As an established leader, what would be your advice to the budding entrepreneurs aspiring to venture into the healthcare architecture and planning space?

To budding entrepreneurs aspiring to venture into any business, my advice would be:

  • Research and learn
  • Don’t expect to be taught by the client on the job
  • Understand the reason behind everything; don’t fall into group-thinking
  • Do not experiment with people’s lives
  • Confidence without arrogance
  • Don’t exclusively judge success by visual appeal and shock value
  • Be regionally specific and sensitive
  • Deliver what you advertise (don’t advertise what you cannot deliver)
  • Don’t exaggerate the simple tools of design
  • Appreciate that specialization is useful; do not dilute the specialized talent

Pertaining to your role as TAHPI’s Managing Director, how do you envision scaling your organization’s operations and offerings in 2021?

We have always pursued organic growth in regional markets. We establish small satellite offices and local partnerships and grow them according to the same pattern that we have practiced over 20 years. The idea is not to have a bloated central management and head office but a distributed network. Each branch office starts off by representing the host country as well as nearby countries.

As the business grows, the branch offices also split off into country-specific branches. In each branch, we start with a combination of experienced staff, usually from our own existing workforce. We then recruit and train locally. We encourage loyalty and reward it. We have experienced that this model works with minimal overhead whilst remaining agile, locally streetwise, and efficient.

In each branch, we gradually promote the staff to higher levels of seniority and management responsibility. There are no barriers. After sufficient local practice, the most senior staff become local directors, and even more experienced and successful managers become the directors of the global TAHPI entity. Our head office has not really grown very much over the last two decades due to this organic growth model.