Transforming health care

(Edmonton) The University of Alberta will officially open the doors to one of the largest, most innovative and forward-thinking teaching and research centres in the world on January 18, 2012. A public open house will be held from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

The kids who’ve been watching its construction from the west side of the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton call it “the Lego building.” At the University of Alberta, people call it Edmonton Clinic Health Academy (ECHA), and it’s the realization of an extraordinary vision, seven years in the making, born of the knowledge that the decades ahead will present challenging times for human health.

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Edmonton Clinic Health Academy

Potential problems include an aging population, more chronic illnesses in young and old, difficulty accessing health care and a predicted massive shortage of skilled health-care professionals. And because they present a significant strain on future health-care systems the University of Alberta is addressing these challenges now.

“Universities operate in a multi-faceted capacity as a community of researchers, innovators and educators of the next generation of providers. As such, we have a pivotal role to play as catalysts for shifting the health-care paradigm,” says U of A Provost Carl Amrhein. “We asked ‘what would it take for this university, this province, to be out front?’ 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.”

To achieve sustainable transformation in health care, an institution has to address how it teaches health-science professionals and how it conducts research. ECHA is a purpose-built structure designed to lay the foundation for groundbreaking interdisciplinary investigations, to encourage the sharing of ideas and to help create a community among the relevant disciplines.

Interdisciplinary Design

Beginning in 2004—with a significant financial investment from the Government of Alberta—Jane Drummond, vice-provost, health sciences, sat down with then-university architect, Len Rodrigues, to set about designing a space that would allow the university to consolidate health sciences faculties under one roof near Edmonton Clinic South, an outpatient centre of Alberta Health Services, scheduled to open in late 2012.

“There was no intuitive ‘front door’ into the health sciences academic side,” Drummond says. “I wanted this building to be that front door.”

New Ways to Learn, Think and Interact

Although it’s only five storeys high, ECHA structure is colossal. At 190 metres from end to end, it’s the length of more than two football fields. By 2016, its 152,400 square metres of space will be used daily by more than 8,000 students and 2,000 staff in 43 health programs.

The priority of Edmonton Clinic Health Academy, both architecturally and philosophically, is to facilitate the continued cross-pollination of perspectives and ideas, in both education and research. The environment encourages team-based and interdisciplinary learning with a design that creates ongoing collaborations and “accidental linkages” among students, faculty and staff.

“The direction is to get out beyond the silos and focus on the problem at hand, not the discipline,” says Dr. Martin Ferguson-Pell, dean of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine  and chair of the U of A Health Sciences Council. “This requires a whole new language—a language of immersion—in which people with very different perspectives come together as they may never have before to find a common discourse.” He says that the interdisciplinary focus on finding solutions means that now experts, who may have rarely worked closely before (such as computer scientist, an electrical engineer, and a cancer researcher, for example), might work together on a team, applying their own very-specialized expertise in a much broader fashion.

“Our researchers at ECHA are jumping in with both feet,” Ferguson-Pell says, “and are building a culture that exemplifies what is possible in an environment where real collaboration and creativity is nurtured.”

For more about ECHA and opening events, visit echa.ualberta.ca

Note: With files from, New Trail, University of Alberta Alumni Magazine, winter 2011