A new day for health care

(Edmonton) The sun rose on a new era in health education and research this week with the official opening of Edmonton Clinic Health Academy (ECHA).

Seven years in the making, the academy promises to transform health care by providing a state-of-the art facility for researchers, students and practising clinicians to freely share knowledge. It is poised to become a world hub for advanced technology and discovery.

“This clinic is demonstrating innovation in research and education; it’s demonstrating collaboration,” said Alberta Premier Alison Redford at the opening ceremony Jan. 18. “And what it’s developed into is a symbol for this province of what we’re committed to as Albertans.”
The ECHA was conceived to meet major health challenges of the coming decades, including an aging population, an increase in chronic illness among young populations and a predicted massive shortage of skilled health-care professionals. Central to the academy’s mission is a recognition that health care must shift from a disease model to a more holistic vision focused on keeping people well—preventing illness and caring for the whole person.

“The future of health education is multi-dimensional and inter-professional,” said U of A President Indira Samarasekera. “It’s about bringing together students and teachers in every health discipline to share ideas, techniques and approaches, and find new ways to practise their professions so all Albertans can benefit.”

The facility itself—a huge, colourful building on the west side of 114th Street. across from the University of Alberta Hospital—is 190 metres long and provides 152,400 metres of space. By 2016, it will house more than 8,000 students and 2,000 staff in 43 programs.

ECHA’s design fosters a progressive, communal approach to research and education, embracing the sharing of ideas across disciplines by bringing together teams of investigators from different backgrounds to solve the most urgent health problems of our time. It’s approach to teaching fuses high-tech with “high-touch” humanistic values, training students to become more caring and compassionate practitioners who thrive in teams.

“The plan was to make the University of Alberta a global leader in inter-professional learning and scholarship, to re-locate students from their rather isolated buildings in faculties across campus and bring themn together in a building designed to promote accidental encounters between disciplines, professions and cultures,” said Martin Ferguson-Pell, dean of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.

Brightly lit common areas encourage students, faculty and staff to draw together and create a kind of “main-street” community. The Discovery Mall at the heart of the academy provides 2,500 metres of highly flexible space for faculty research teams. Furniture, and even walls, can be moved to suit the needs of a specific project.

A community spirit infuses every square foot of ECHA. The Student Commons atrium features casual seating, offices for student leaders, quiet study areas and a large patio for spring and summer barbecues. It is home to 12 health science groups and associations, including the Health Science Students’ Association (HSSA).

“As students learning at ECHA, we’re developing interdisciplinary leadership from the first day we start at school,” says HSSA ppresident Andrew Tang. “We don’t want the emergency room to be the first place we meet and collaborate with colleagues from other disciplines. We don’t want to miss an important intervention because we haven’t considered it from multiple perspectives.”

ECHA is also equipped with state-of-the art labs in a range of disciplines to create real-life emergency simulations for an unparalleled learning experience. A planned immersive lab, reminiscent of a “holodeck,” is on track to be one of the most sophisticated learning simulation labs in the world. Like a theatre, it will blend digital technology with actors, mannequins and soundtracks to recreate realistic scenarios—complete with day or night conditions—such as an ambulance experience, crash scene or natural disaster.

The Bariatric Lab, the first in Canada, will engage a wide range of health professionals in tackling one of the country’s fastest-growing problems—obesity. And the Rehab Robotics Lab will help people living with disabilities better treat and manage their own care.

“What a clinician needs is to examine their patient in the real world, but to also have all the equipment and control provided within a laboratory,” says the lab’s co-founder and co-director, Greg Kawchuk. “Using robotics and virtual reality, we can do just that—recreate the real world inside the lab to better understand a patient’s problems. Then we can use those same tools to design individualized interventions that maximize a patient’s healing, recovery and functions.”

“We asked what it would really take for the university, this province, to be out front,” says U of A Provost Carl Amrhein. “Edmonton Clinic Health Academy is our answer. It’s Alberta’s engine for health innovation, and we believe it has the capacity to transform the way we think about health care.”