5 trends in health education campus design

As the medical and healthcare professions evolve, so must the institutions that train the next generation of providers.

Health education buildings are changing, too, as institutional leaders, students, and faculty work with architects and designers to support new ways of teaching and learning.    

“We located our Office of Inclusion in one of the most prominent spaces in the new building. It’s a visible commitment to the work.”
Ken Johnson, D.O., Executive Dean of the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and Chief Medical Affairs Officer, Ohio University
1. Encouraging diversity, equity, and inclusion

Studies have shown that a diverse medical workforce leads to better health outcomes. “There’s a huge push right now to train health professionals who look like and talk like and culturally understand the patient population they’re going to serve,” says health education design leader Heidi Costello.

Colleges and universities hoping to meet the needs of communities where their graduates will practice medicine are putting diversity front and center. Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine took this challenge quite literally, in fact. Early in the design process for its new building, students on the college’s anti-racism curriculum committee advocated for a physical manifestation of equity and inclusion efforts.

“We met them, and they said they wanted a presence in the new building,” says architect and designer Jerry Johnson. “And they didn’t want to be tucked away in the back or on a top floor. They wanted to be up front; they wanted a space that was open and welcoming right away.”

With the support of the administration, Johnson, Costello, and their team delivered just that. “We located our Office of Inclusion in the atrium, one of the most prominent spaces in the new building,” says Ken Johnson, executive dean and chief medical affairs officer. “Our campus dean is collocated in that space now as well. It’s a visible commitment to the work.”

“Flexible buildings cost more up front, but the expense is significantly less compared to a future large-scale renovation.”
Cara Prosser, Architect and Planner
2. Designing flexible, adaptable spaces

Accreditation requirements and pedagogical preferences are shifting to reflect changes in technology and patient-care models. In this world of future unknowns, learning spaces and entire buildings should be designed with built-in flexibility whenever possible. This can manifest at a variety of scales, from relatively small innovations like removable walls in simulation rooms to large-scale strategies like acuity-adaptable floors in teaching hospitals.   

At Indiana University’s Indianapolis Academic Health Center, Medical Education and Research Facility, the 8-story tower above the medical education floors was originally intended to house offices. “We were discussing the building’s design on a virtual meeting during the pandemic, and somebody questioned the need for so much office space, given that all of us were collaborating remotely at that very moment,” Johnson says. The clients wondered if the tower could be designed to allow the future conversion of office space to research labs if needed. “We said yes,” Johnson says. “And then we figured out how to do it.” 

“The opportunity to be WELL certified was both a demonstration of our commitment to wellness and an external validation of our efforts.”
Ken Johnson, D.O., Executive Dean of the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and Chief Medical Affairs Officer, Ohio University
3. Promoting health and well-being 

As students strive to learn as much as they can about healing others, they often neglect their own well-being over the course of their studies.

An Ohio University study has documented this decline. Researchers found that aspiring medical school students were exceptionally resilient, with less anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation than the general student population. But that changed after they entered medical school. “Medical students can actually be more depressed, anxious, and suicidal than the general population,” Ken Johnson says.

And of course, the pressure doesn’t let up after those students graduate and enter practice. “It’s difficult to face this, but 300 to 400 physicians commit suicide every year in the United States, which is about the size of an average medical school,” he says. “Our nation loses a medical school’s worth of physicians every year to suicide. I feel like it’s incumbent upon us to address this situation from the beginning. That’s why one of our major design goals was to create an experience that helps students build their resilience, so they can deal with the challenges they’ll face as a physician.”

As a result, the college’s newest building and recently revamped curriculum work in tandem to encourage students, faculty, and staff to enjoy access to healthy food, natural light, fitness and yoga rooms, and other health-based amenities. The building is on track to be the first WELL certified medical school in the U.S., and the curriculum incorporates wellness breaks throughout the day to encourage students to recharge in the ways that feel best to them.

“We want to follow best practices, but we also need to ask, ‘What’s next?’”
Jill Sand, Health Sciences Dean at Southeast Community College
4. Accommodating new and emerging technology 

From telemedicine training centers to simulation labs, modern health education buildings are preparing students for a wired future.  

The University of Minnesota Health Sciences Education Center replaced the traditional library model with a living laboratory for exploring emerging technologies to advance teaching, learning, research, and patient care. “It was about taking that idea of the library and peeling it apart and infusing the technology piece,” Costello says. “It’s a connector between colleges and schools in the Academic Health Center and a trusted partner in accessing and applying new information.” 

The resulting floorplans intersperse recording studios, makerspaces, and a virtual reality area among more traditional simulation rooms and classrooms. Tech-savvy librarians, now known as information managers, provide support from conveniently accessible locations.

Sometimes forward-looking design choices run contrary to conventional wisdom, which means creative thinking and risk-taking is key to success. At Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Nebraska, administrators opted to go against the grain when it came to their medical simulation spaces.

“I was constantly told that a simulation control room was absolutely essential, but I think they’re a thing of the past,” says Jill Sand, the college’s health sciences dean. “We can run our simulations from anywhere, even from home if we need to. Eliminating the control room uses space more effectively, and students can run simulations anytime, not only during scheduled classes. We want to follow best practices, but we also need to ask, ‘What’s next?’”

"This isn’t about just checking boxes for accreditation. People are asking us, ‘How can we truly break down barriers?'"
Heidi Costello, Interior Designer and Planner
5. Fostering interprofessional collaboration

Interprofessional learning areas have long been on medical schools’ “nice to have” lists, particularly given accreditation requirements to provide opportunities for cross-disciplinary interaction. The pandemic has given this goal a new sense of urgency and importance.  

“Health professionals had to wear multiple hats over the past few years,” Costello says. “If you were a nurse, suddenly you had to become a respiratory therapist, too. Even pre-COVID we were seeing a shift toward co-locating multiple groups to foster collaborations and synergies, and the pandemic has only accelerated that change.” 

To support this need, Indiana University’s new Indianapolis Academic Health Center, Medical Education and Research Facility was designed around the concept of learning communities. “We worked with their team to create spaces that bring students from different backgrounds together inside and outside the classroom,” says planner Cara Prosser. “A first-year student might hang out with a third-year clerkship student at a ‘home base’ between classes, or they might grab a coffee together at the grab-&-go.” These types of informal interactions extend learning and build a deeper understanding across study areas.