A patient in the intensive-care unit enters cardiac arrest. The nursing staff moves swiftly to resuscitate and intubate him.
That's common enough, but in this healthcare scenario some things vary widely from reality: No doctor is summoned because the patient is a dummy. So is the entire hospital, for that matter.
It's obvious to a healthcare professional that the Center for Health Careers Education at Gateway Community College in Phoenix isn't a functioning hospital. However, only a few clues alert a layperson. Along with an ICU, the highly elaborate mock-up includes a nursing station and four-bed patient wing; an operating room and attached lab; a sprawling imaging, nuclear medicine and radiology complex; a home healthcare center; an extensive physical therapy wing; and even a morgue with two cadavers. All of the equipment is real, and it works as designed.
"It's very similar to a hospital in the sense of infrastructure and technical systems, although it has more of an educational and warmer feeling than a real hospital," says Jay Silverberg, an architect with Gould Evans Associates, the Phoenix lead design firm on the project.
The Maricopa Community College District in Phoenix spent about
$11 million on the handsome glass-and-steel facility, which opened last September. Its size-76,000 square feet-dominates Gateway's tiny campus, which is sandwiched in a low-rise industrial section between downtown Phoenix and Sky Harbor Airport. The funds for the structure came from a $385 million bond issue voters approved in the mid-1990s to improve the county's educational facilities. The center took about a year to construct, according to Gateway officials.
More on the way. Except for a similar but somewhat older facility on the campus of Milwaukee Area Technical College, no other mock teaching hospitals are believed to exist in the country, according to healthcare design experts. However, more mock hospitals are coming. In September, the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse will open a 167,000-square-foot facility on its campus in conjunction with Viterbo College, Western Wisconsin Technical College and two area hospitals: Franciscan Skemp Healthcare-La Crosse Campus and Lutheran Hospital-La Crosse. The University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Aurora is also considering a similar project.
"A lot of educational institutions believe there's more of a need these days to simulate a hands-on environment," says Larry Schnuck, a principal with Kahler Slater Architects in Milwaukee. Kahler Slater has had a hand in designing all the current and pending mock hospitals and has done design work on several hospitals in Illinois and Wisconsin. According to Schnuck, contacts he and the firm had at Milwaukee Area Technical College launched them toward designing such facilities.
Both Schnuck and Silverberg's firms say their recent work has generated inquiries from other colleges about building similar projects. "We're getting quite a few feelers," Silverberg says.
Labor shortages. The simple reason for constructing such elaborate ruses is that shortages of experienced healthcare support staff in fast-growing cities such as Phoenix are common. According to a recent study by the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association (AHHA), the state's nursing corps is aging rapidly, while recruiting new nurses is becoming increasingly difficult. Those now in the workforce are also tough to retain: 51% of more than 2,000 nurses surveyed had changed jobs within the past two years.
In such an environment, hospitals and clinics are scrambling to hire personnel who, while properly educated, may lack crucial hands-on experience. With starting pay for new graduates often approaching $40,000 per year, it seemed a steep premium to hire what are essentially apprentices.
"There was a realization about five years ago that there was an issue in terms of the appropriateness of preparation. There were simply a lot of hires who needed to be retrained," says Fran Roberts, vice president of professional development at the AHHA, the state's primary hospital lobby.
Roberts also notes that the region's community colleges often focus on particular healthcare specialties, sometimes turning out too many graduates for a crowded field while other areas were wanting for personnel. The association has been working with the community college district since 1996 to revamp its healthcare curriculum, with Gateway's new center being one of the results.
Gateway, which has more than 2,000 students each term working toward two-year associate degrees in 12 healthcare fields, is the primary feeder institution to local hospitals and clinics. Its new center-which serves all of its healthcare students-is expected to increase hands-on training and better educate future healthcare employees on how to work with one another.
"For instance, the mock operating room allows nursing students to interact with physical therapy students, which is the way it works in the real world-there aren't just nurses around," Roberts says.
High hopes. Gateway's faculty and staff wax rhapsodic about the building, which also contains sleek offices, classrooms and an auditorium. They are certain the new facility will improve learning.
"We had an outdated facility that had gotten too small," says Jolyne Ghanatabadi, Gateway's dean of instruction. "In this new building, students will be learning as quickly as they possibly can."
Ghanatabadi believes the new facility will lead to a 10% enrollment increase in the healthcare programs and produce more nurses, radiographers, surgical technicians, medical transcriptionists, nuclear medicine technologists and health unit coordinators. She notes that prospective students from as far away as Japan and Germany have inquired about Gateway's programs.
"I hate to trash the old (health education) building, but we had absolutely no equipment at all," says Mark Richard, Gateway's program director for nuclear medicine technology. Gateway's health program classes were previously held in a Quonset-hut-style converted warehouse that was constructed in the 1950s. In such an environment, "students had to wait until they went to an actual clinical site to be on the firing line and work with live doses (of radiation) from the start," Richard says.
The students say they are grateful for their new learning environment. Corey Attanasio, 38 and a former retail employee and small-business owner who is studying to be a respiratory technician, says the entire environment of Gateway has been transformed. "It's a wonderful place, not because it's brand new, but because the energy of the faculty is new," she says. "I'm proud that I'll be in its first graduating class."