Perspectives 12.16.2020

Transforming Care at the Foundation of Medical Learning

How do we design health sciences and medical education facilities to best support the next generation of health professionals?

Many students in the U.S. and Canada have shifted to remote learning models on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. This transition, however, is not entirely sustainable for those in the medical and health sciences education field due to the highly specialized, hands-on, and collaborative nature of the professions. The design of their facilities must therefore provide a safe environment in which students can practice clinical techniques and train across disciplines. 

“COVID-19 has underscored the need for resilient, adaptable learning environments to train future health professionals,” says Heidi Costello, firmwide Medical and Health Sciences Education Leader. “Our job is to collaborate with clients on creating agile, forward-thinking spaces that flex to accommodate future unknowns.”

Below are a few examples of  best practices that can help health sciences and medical education facilities prepare the healthcare professionals of tomorrow—even during a pandemic. 

University of Minnesota Health Sciences Education Center (HSEC)
Varying classroom sizes accommodate a number of pedagogies and program types

Planning for  Change   

The pandemic has highlighted how quickly the stressors on healthcare can change, ushering in major shifts in the delivery of care. “We have to be intentional about creating a long-term strategy to support changing pedagogies and unexpected evolutions in the healthcare world,” says Sumegha Shah, a Medical and Health Sciences Education planner. “One such recent change is the accelerated need for additional technology and space to integrate the adoption of telehealth competencies and training programs.”

Take the University of Minnesota Health Sciences Education Center (HSEC) for example, which opened in 2020. Its highly adaptable education center includes varying classroom sizes that accommodate a number of pedagogies and program types, from small seminar rooms to reconfigurable classrooms to flexible multi-purpose spaces. Prior to the pandemic, the simulation facility was intended to be used by groups with differing educational needs. While this can flex to accommodate large sizes, it can easily support smaller groups as well.

In April 2020, the simulation space supported projects related to research and training to support frontline workers in the COVID-19 response. The facility was also used to train incoming residents and students on personal protective equipment use in clinical environments. These are just the earliest examples of the building’s multipurpose usability and the transformative potential for healthcare education. The spaces are intended to grow and adapt to include new technologies and methodologies as they emerge.

Flexibility and adaptability are also evident in the new wellness and education facility at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Shreveport. “In this new building, students from the School of Allied Health Professions and the School of Nursing will eventually be able to work side-by-side in experiential learning and simulation environments,” comments Costello. “This interdisciplinary collaboration will closely replicate the dynamics of real-world healthcare environments.”

Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Shreveport
In this new building, students will be able to work side-by-side in experiential learning and simulation environments.
University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS)
Interdisciplinary learning communities allow students to have serendipitous encounters to cross-pollinate new ideas

Collaborating Across Disciplines 

Exposure to diverse disciplines within the health care industry is essential to effectively change the landscape of health care. Collaborative training through interprofessional education (IPE) and team-based learning can optimize health outcomes for patients.

“Interprofessional collaboration encourages students to pool their knowledge and problem-solving skills to identify correct diagnosis more quickly and establish treatment protocols for patients together,” says Brenda Smith, a former nurse who is now a Health Practice leader in our firm. “Through team-based knowledge and skill-sharing, we can break down barriers between health professionals and collectively prepare students to drive improved patient care.”

The benefits of a collaborative learning environment are evident at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS). Completed in 2016, SMHS was ahead of its time in its approach to programming for interdisciplinary collaboration.  It includes eight learning communities that serve 100 students across  disciplines. Each student is assigned a community with the goal of meeting peers outside of classrooms and labs. Having these serendipitous encounters allows students to cross-pollinate new ideas and innovations that optimize health outcomes.

“COVID-19 placed the need for medical care excellence at the forefront and that starts in a collaborative approach to a well-designed health sciences and medical education building.” – Heidi Costello

A virtual reality Anatomage table is a revolutionary teaching tool that allows for digital dissection.

Pushing Innovation

Technology and virtual connections are perhaps one of the most critical tools in health sciences and medical education, especially given the abrupt shift to virtual learning. Through simulation rooms, interactions with standardized patients, or even virtual reality training spaces, health students can perfect high-risk clinical techniques in a safe environment while learning to interact with patients.

“Technology needs to be woven into the very fabric of the educational environment,” says Costello. “It enhances the ability for students to interact through augmented reality, record through one-button studios, dissect digitally on an anatomage table, and connect electronically for telehealth training. The settings in which care is delivered will adapt to support these and other technological advances.”

At the University of Minnesota’s HSEC, technology is integrated throughout the entire building through high-tech simulation spaces that immerse future health professionals into real-world health environments. The Health Sciences Library, for example is a transformative learning hub and a living laboratory of exploration. The data and visualization lab, makerspace, 1:Button studios, and virtual reality studio also enhance collaboration and technology advancements to enhance the curriculum. Together, these spaces demonstrate how facilities can equip students with the tools and technologies that are shaping the future of healthcare.

Creating Moments of Respite 

Emotional and mental well-being is greatly impacted by social and environmental conditions. In fact, 60% of physicians participating in a recent survey reported burnout since the start of the pandemic—an alarming statistic when considering the shortage of physicians in the U.S.

“Integrating moments of respite is essential for supporting the next generation of healers,” Costello says. These areas can include visual or physical connections to nature, meditation rooms, wellness studios, cultural community areas, or fitness centers—inclusive spaces that encourage active lifestyle and mental contemplation.

One example project that weaves areas of respite throughout the building is Miami University’s Clinical Health Sciences and Wellness Building in Oxford, Ohio. Once completed, the facility will include a “well-being ribbon”. This oversized open corridor weaves together visual reminders to focus on mind, body, and spirit through areas, such as a café, respite lounge, and a wellness experience center. This journey expands to the outdoor courtyard, which offers a direct connection to nature. Here, health sciences students and faculty can take mindful breaks to destress outside of the classroom.

Miami University’s Clinical Health Sciences and Wellness Building in Oxford, Ohio
This oversized open corridor weaves together visual reminders to focus on mind, body, and spirit.

Designing with Intention 

The significance of medical education and health science facilities on higher education campuses will continue to increase, especially in a time with focused efforts to improve the health of people everywhere. An emphasis on educating a diverse and culturally competent health care workforce will equip students to support medically underserved communities. These facilities transform how the next generation of health care leaders learn and how they deliver care to diverse patient populations.

As designers, we need to be conscious of how facilities can accommodate unexpected needs and circumstances, including but not limited to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are paying special attention to flexible design and construction concepts that enable rapid space transitions and allow education environments to adapt to future training needs,” says Shah. “This adaptability includes the need to integrate flexible HVAC systems, patient and provider flow, technology enhancements, and multi-disciplinary training capabilities.” It is in these facilities that health students are equipped with the practical experience to improve patient safety and care in any situation and circumstance.

“Though it’s hard to say exactly where the future of healthcare is going 50 years from now, we can take a step back and focus on big picture ideas that encompass care on a holistic level,” Costello says. “COVID-19 placed the need for medical care excellence at the forefront and that starts in a collaborative approach to a well-designed health sciences and medical education building.”