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    Edmonton Clinic Health Academy’s interdisciplinary approach is at the leading edge of health education and research

    By Christie Moncrief on December 5, 2011

    Edmonton Clinic Health Academy’s interdisciplinary approach is at the leading edge of health education and research

    To the kids on the west side of the Stollery Children’s Hospital it’s the Lego building. To the University of Alberta, Edmonton Clinic Health Academy (ECHA) is the realization of an extraordinary vision seven years in the making.

    With Canada’s health care system facing an array of complex issues—including an aging population, chronic illness and accessibility—it’s clear that significant change is needed. And the most logical place to start sustainable transformation is from the ground up—by addressing how health science professionals are taught and how research is conducted. ECHA is a purpose-built structure designed to encourage the sharing of ideas and the creation of a community amongst health care professionals at an academic level. “There was no intuitive ‘front door’ into the health sciences academic side,” notes Jane Drummond, ’81 MSc, vice-provost for the Health Sciences Council. “I wanted this building to be that front door.”

    Interdisciplinary design

    Jane Drummond

    Jane Drummond (Photo by Ken Mathewson)

    Beginning in 2004—with major financial contribution from the provincial government—Drummond and the University Architect set about designing a space that would allow the University to consolidate health science faculties under one roof with convenient proximity to the Edmonton Clinic South, an outpatient centre scheduled to open in late 2012.

    Although it’s only five storeys high, the ECHA structure itself is colossal—623 feet from end to end—the length of over two football fields. And it should be big. Its 500,000 square feet of space can accommodate 3,400 students in 71 classrooms and theatres, and will be home to 12 health science research and education groups who will work together to improve health outcomes for all Canadians.


    “I really want students to be primary,” asserts Drummond, “so I wanted to give them quality space in this building.” In ECHA, they have just that as student spaces occupy the first three floors of the building. The Student Commons is home to 12 health science student groups and associations including the Health Science Student’s Association and the SHINE Program.

    “It’s a great place to build a sense of camaraderie amongst the faculties,” says Cindy Luc, a second-year pharmacy student involved with SHINE, a student-run health clinic providing a variety of free services to Edmonton’s underserved youth.

    ECHA Reading Room

    ECHA's modern Reading Room offers plenty of quiet study space for students. (Photo by Ken Mathewson)

    “We put all of the student governance and leadership associations together. Here, they have an opportunity to learn to work together when they’re young, so that they might also work together when they’re older,” Drummond says. “We’re developing interdisciplinary leadership from the bottom up.”

    Situated in the southeast corner of the ground level right off the Health Sciences LRT platform—a prime traffic location—a foyer provides opportunities for student groups to promote activities and events to people entering the building. Inside the Commons, each student group has office space with access to a shared meeting area and outdoor patio.

    Student executives and governance were consulted in planning meaningful spaces relevant to the modern student, whose priorities were not only for study places, but social zones, too. ECHA, therefore, includes an abundance of quiet study spaces as well as separate areas where groups can gather. On the lower level, designers included, at students’ request, an expansive Reading Room. A long, narrow, airy space lit by light-wells from the floors above, the Reading Room’s modern design incorporates intimate two-seater wooden booths along one wall and a modern concrete wall displaying art from the University’s extensive art collection.

    Lecture theatre in ECHA

    High-tech lecture theatres can seat more than 250 students per class. (Photo by Ken Mathewson)

    Classrooms are impressively responsive to student needs. Four 250+ -seat lecture theatres are some of the most high-tech on the U of A’s campus, offering individual hubs for students to connect personal laptops, video and audio lecture capture technology (which will provide opportunities for inter-campus learning), and eventually, Drummond says, simultaneous translation equipment valuable to the University for international events.

    Simulation labs will offer students practical experience to bridge their transition to caring for end-users in a real-life setting. “Nursing has the most amazing labs in here,” Drummond says of the Faculty’s large, multi-room simulation lab—a setting so clinical and state-of-the-art you’d think you were entering a real hospital ward. Here, students tend to low- and high-fidelity mannequin “patients” in simulated clinical scenarios. Professors and instructors in adjacent rooms are able to give the mannequins a voice via microphone, communicating symptoms and responding to “treatment.”

    In the Dentistry and Nutrition lab, 61 pull-out patient simulators—40 more units than are available at any other teaching institution in Canada—provide future dentists and dental hygienists with eerily lifelike simulation models.

    On the second floor, in the Health Sciences Education and Research Commons (HSERC), simulation tools like the U of A’s Standardized Patient Program offer students a chance to study various clinical scenarios in specialized rooms with patient-actors, who are trained to present with a range of conditions. Any number of medical scenarios can be recreated in 24 specialized rooms—emergency, ICU, epidemic and communicable isolation, or treatment for bariatric patients. Video recordings of simulations are taken and played back to students in debriefing rooms to further enhance practical training.

    Students and instructors run a medical simulation in an interdisciplinary lab

    High-fidelity mannequins in simulation labs offer students hands-on experience in a variety of medical scenarios. (Photo by Michael Holly)

    “The Health Sciences Council has been delivering the interprofessional team-based curriculum for 20 years, and, here, we’re enriching it by adding a simulation lab. Nowhere else do they do this,” explains Drummond about the relationship between team learning and simulation learning spaces.


    ECHA’s third, fourth and fifth floors are home to the University’s health science faculties’ administration and researchers.

    The Interdisciplinary Health Research Academy—or “Discovery Mall”—is 25,000 square feet of space assigned to faculty research teams and the Health Sciences Council incubator program. The research spaces within the Discovery Mall are highly flexible. Researchers will have the ability to arrange spaces as their research projects evolve—moving furniture and even walls to create workspaces appropriate to their needs.

    Located within HSERC is the Smart Condo, a one-bedroom, fully functional, apartment-style condo developed jointly by the departments of Occupational Therapy and Industrial Design to teach and test tools for dignified aging. “The idea is to teach students what it’s like to be in a wheelchair,” says Drummond. “To test technologies to help people with various health issues live more comfortably, and research appropriate technologies to transfer into the community.”

    Leading the way

    With state-of-the-art technologies throughout, encouragement of interdisciplinary interaction, and a sustainable design that promotes a culture of wellness, ECHA raises the bar for health science education and research on a provincial, national and international level.

    “I have no doubt that this facility will support scholarship that can have a lasting, positive impact,” Drummond says. “Hopefully our successes will be part of a global shift towards better health care delivery for all. I can’t imagine a more positive outcome.”


    Take a virtual tour of ECHA:


    Edmonton Clinic Health Academy Tour, June 2011 from Health Sciences Council on Vimeo.