European praise for specialist NHS unit

A sensory room at the Mitford Unit, Northgate Hospital, Morpeth.
A sensory room at the Mitford Unit, Northgate Hospital, Morpeth.

An NHS centre in Morpeth that specifically supports adults with autism has been praised by European experts for its ‘clever’ and ‘innovative’ design.

The Mitford Unit at Northgate Hospital opened to patients in November 2016.

It followed years of painstaking research and development to make it as welcoming as possible for adults living with autism should they need inpatient support.

The bespoke design of the building, run by Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (NTW), and its attention to detail have now been highly commended in the European Healthcare Design Awards.

The unit, a new home for an existing service, received the accolades in the Mental Health Design and Design for Health and Well-being categories.

NTW clinical nurse manager, Sheree McCartney, said: “Service users and their families shared their expertise about useful and important things we could do to make Mitford the best it could be, as it’s crucial to make anyone’s time in hospital as comfortable as possible.

“We’re so pleased to see the hard work of so many of our staff, service users, families and partners honoured in this way.

“We work closely with individuals and their families so people can get back home to loved ones as quickly as possible. That said, the time they do stay with us at Mitford is and always will be shaped, just as the building is, by their expertise and knowledge.”

NHS staff and Medical Architecture were also involved in designing the centre, which incorporates a range of elements to make it as welcoming as possible and to reduce anxiety for adults living with autism.

Specialist features include curved walls and seating areas throughout to help people move about the unit with ease, precise temperature and lighting controls for each living area to adjust the environment depending on patients’ needs, doors and cupboards that can be hidden into walls to create smooth lines and sound-proofing throughout the unit to help reduce noise sensitivity.

In addition, the unit has technology that enables patients to use Skype so they can be brought into meetings about their care – even if they are unable to attend in person.

The awards jury said in its summary of the centre: ‘Mitford Adult Autism Unit represents an innovative and positive approach to the care, treatment and rehabilitation of this often-neglected group.

‘The design demonstrates a sensitive understanding of the significant influence of the physical environment on those with autism, creating a series of flexible spaces that allow staff to respond to the varied needs of individual patients.

‘It has succeeded in creating a sense of calm, privacy, protection and normal living. These attributes are important in the care of this group of patients and have been achieved through an extremely clever and simple yet elegant layout, which also provides for reassuringly clear orientation and way-finding.

‘Perhaps the greatest success is that the design of this ground-breaking project has created a real sense of home for the users that will undoubtedly prove beneficial to their treatment, but yet is rarely so excellently achieved.’