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6 ways design can supercharge innovation in health sciences and medical education

It might sound radical, but the best way to achieve better collaboration is by eliminating traditional operational silos and the resulting departments.

We’re heading straight for a significant healthcare worker shortage—and fast. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, by 2033, the U.S. could experience a shortage of anywhere from 54,000 to 140,000 physicians.

By just 2025, the consulting firm Mercer estimates that we’ll see significant shortages in nursing assistants (95,000), home health aides (446,000), nurse practitioners (29,000) and medical and lab technologists and technicians (nearly 100,000).

This reality means colleges and universities are heavily investing in their health sciences and medical education programs to combat this shortage—with many creating new buildings or renovating their existing facilities. With building projects often taking multiple years to be designed, built and operationalized, it’s critical to fully understand the constantly evolving future of health sciences and medical education, and to design for that future today.

Here are a few ways we’re thinking about that future—and how we believe innovation and collaboration within these spaces will advance.


We know how to design spaces that encourage both planned and serendipitous collaboration. Co-locating different departments in the same areas and designing spaces flexible enough to be used by different departments and specializations are a few strategies we use.

But people won’t co-mingle and collaborate only because we’ve provided the spaces to do so. If the building users don’t see the value or available opportunities, collaboration won’t happen.

It might sound radical, but the best way to achieve better collaboration is by eliminating traditional operational silos and the resulting departments. For example, our firm is currently designing the first “department-less” hospital for the Philadelphia Neuroscience Institute. It was initiated not by the hospital C-suite, but by the team of neurosurgeons who will use the space each day. Without separate departments and offices, various clinicians, physicians, researchers and more will naturally be sharing spaces and continually collaborating on patient care.

The Philadelphia Neuroscience Institute establishes a new typology for healthcare design that will connect clinicians, patients and industry partners for bold new care delivery and research.


If this is the patient care building of the future, are education programs preparing students with the skills they need to thrive in this new reality?



Training future medical practitioners and care staff virtually will not teach them how to empathize with people, which is a core tenant of their field. It’s important to connect with patients on a personal level—to see their body language, feel their emotions, understand their needs and provide compassionate in-person support and care.

Virtual learning is best for delivering educational content and providing self-paced lessons. Technology can close gaps: Instead of students having to take remedial courses and being told they’re not good enough, they can work individually to catch up with their peers. It also allows students to rewatch lectures and presentations to ensure they can review core anatomy, biology or chemistry concepts multiple times.

Using video, lessons can be taught and learned outside the classroom, which allows students to be physically present in school for project work and simulation practice. We designed the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine to accommodate this approach, which allowed us to free up more space in the building for team-based, hands-on learning.

The simulation areas in the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine allow students to fully engage in practicing the foundational skills required to care for patients in a variety of real-world settings.


It might sound counterintuitive coming from architects, but an empty space—with plenty of nearby storage—can be configured for a variety of disciplines, teaching styles, training and technology needs.

Envisioning uses for an empty space requires a lot of thought and foresight into how the room could and will be used in the future, and how technological advances might affect that. The Surgical and Innovation Training Lab we designed at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) took this idea to the next level. The space can be transformed into an operating suite for extreme environments, such as on a space shuttle or in the middle of the desert with no resources around. To facilitate this kind of radical flexibility and adaptability, the ceiling plane was designed similarly to a theatre stage so that everything in the ceiling can be moved and re-arranged, including lights, equipment, technology and more.

UIC’s Surgical and Training Lab can easily be reconfigured to test out and simulate procedures for any type of environment.

“Flexibility” is the concept of the future when it comes to higher education spaces—and for good reason. The more flexible a room is, the more ways it can be used, which allows colleges and universities to get more for their limited budgets. An open room that allows for active learning, group work and technology use—like immersive virtual reality—can serve many different types of disciplines, courses and training needs.


As designers, we spend a lot of time conceptualizing the exam or inpatient room and other clinical spaces for both training and patient care, but healthcare—and even surgery—also happens outside the hospital walls in unregulated environments. It’s interesting to talk with paramedic and medivac teams about how they provide care and then incorporate mobile healthcare into training spaces.

While serious conditions and procedures still need to be managed within clinical environments, many procedures that were once inpatient reliant are now capable of being done in an ambulatory outpatient setting—and many patients, symptoms and conditions can be evaluated, monitored and treated virtually without having to step foot into a healthcare building. Patients can even be monitored remotely through wearable diagnostic devices that can anticipate problems or detect symptoms before a crisis occurs.


Teledigital pods for one-on-one virtual sessions give clinicians adequate space to perform virtual visits.


The doctor of the future needs to be trained to work “outside” the traditional hospital parameters and be able to diagnose, manage and treat conditions both in person and virtually.