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Health Revolution: UT Rethinks Everything about Health Care

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Dell Medical School dean Clay Johnston and fellow doctors

Can you imagine a world in which we all lead healthier lives, and only the sickest of the sick are treated in hospitals? That scenario may arrive sooner than you think. The university’s Dell Medical School is still under construction, but faculty members there and throughout UT are focused on interdisciplinary approaches that promise to improve life for patients and practitioners alike. So sit tight — help is on the way, stat.

To glimpse the future of health care, start with the Design Institute for Health, a partnership between Dell Medical School and the College of Fine Arts. President Greg Fenves has made it a priority to pursue innovative approaches not just in health education, but also patient care and community service.

Accordingly, this first-of-its-kind institute is dedicated to applying design thinking and creative solutions to our health care challenges and then — crucially — integrating those innovations into medical education, care, and community health programs in cost-effective ways.

Two veterans of the internationally recognized design and consulting firm IDEO were recruited to lead the institute: Stacey Chang, IDEO’s former managing director of health and wellness; and UT alum Beto Lopez, BS ’00, MS ’02, the firm’s former global lead of systems design.

IDEO is credited with a number of landmark designs that established its reputation as an innovator, including the original computer mouse. Since then, the firm has expanded its reach from products to experiences, contributing in areas ranging from nontraditional classrooms to retail spaces and even public policy.

Dell Medical School lecture hall

When Dell Medical School opens in 2016, its initial three buildings will have 600,000 square feet of education, care, and research space.

The nation is more than ready, says Chang, for human-centered designs that reduce waiting room times, help people tend to their own health, and create a more compassionate atmosphere in hospitals and clinics.

“There are endless opportunities,” he says, “to rethink products and systems so they better serve people who need them.”

With many providers already moving toward a system that focuses as much on people’s lives, priorities, and loved ones as on their particular maladies, Lopez says, the Design Institute for Health will systematically use design and creativity to generate better health outcomes at lower costs.

“We’ll examine everything,” he says, “from the design of health products to the architecture of the hospital to the functionality of the health ecosystem itself.”

“Our goal is nothing less than to redesign health care delivery in America,” says Doug Dempster, dean of the College of Fine Arts. “In the process, we are ensuring that our design program is a unifying entrepreneurial discipline at The University of Texas.”

If there is one thing that unifies patients in the realm of health design, it might just be the dreaded open-to-the-back hospital gown. Is it in the queue for redesign? Given that Clay Johnston, the medical school’s founding dean, cited the infamous garment in his Alcalde Article, “Ten Backward Things about our Health Care System”, you can count on it. Stay tuned.


The School of Nursing, neighbor to and integral component of the rising Dell complex, provides a window to the kind of innovative work that already characterizes UT’s medical teaching and research.

The school, one of the state’s major centers of nursing education and research, may look dated on the outside next to the new medical buildings, but inside is a different story. With an infusion of medical school funding, including philanthropic dollars, the nursing school recently finished a complete revamp of its impressive Simulation and Skills Laboratories.

The two schools are full partners in the updated and expanded labs, which take up much of Nursing’s fourth floor. Using high-end, state-of-the-art equipment, nursing students — as well as pharmacy, social work, and, soon, medical students — are able to work in tandem to hone foundational skills that will serve them throughout their careers.

By role-playing with one another and with faculty members, and interacting with sophisticated mannequin “patients” in facsimile medical environments, the students can put their theoretical knowledge into practice through realistic simulations of patient care before ever setting foot in a real-life clinic or hospital.

Simulation is fundamental to learning proper technique, says Scott Hudson, MS ’00, director of the labs. With a background in theater as well as nursing, Hudson’s creative know-how comes in handy for the performance aspect of the labs’ mission.

School of Nursing Sim Lab

The Simulation and Skills Laboratories provide an environment for students to gain hands-on practice and demonstrate their nursing skills.

“Through role-playing,” he says, “we try to create at various levels a realistic simulation of the medical world and patient care to offer the best learning environment we can for our students.”

The nursing school makes its own “bodily fluids” for the students to train with, including imitation blood and urine. (And you may never crave cherry pie again once you’ve seen what they do with pie filling.)

The sophisticated, high-fidelity mannequins, on the other hand, can cost tens of thousands of dollars. With human dimensions and weights, some feature veins that can be punctured by needles to draw and inject fluids, heartbeats that can be read by electrocardiograms and restarted with defibrillators, and other lifelike attributes.

“It’s about opportunity,” says Leigh Goldstein, PhD ’13, an assistant professor of nursing and director of the Learning Enhancement and Academic Progress Center, which includes the labs. “We can spend hours in a hospital with our students and maybe put in only one I.V. So there might be 10 students and one of them gets to do it.

“Or we can simulate everyone getting to do an I.V., over and over, in an hour or two. And that extends to things like watching a baby be born or assessing a hemorrhage. If that doesn’t happen in a hospital visit, they don’t get to experience it. But we can replicate it and repeat it here.”

Replicating and repeating is a major theme in the labs, which is why in some ways they resemble the set for a medical TV show as much as they do a hospital wing. As students practice their techniques, they can record themselves with strategically mounted cameras, and then watch, adjust, and repeat until they feel they’ve perfected their skills. At that point they can share their recordings with their instructor for feedback and discussion.

“The old way, we used to stand over them with a checklist and make them a nervous wreck,” Goldstein says.


When Dell Medical School’s initial three buildings open in 2016, their 600,000 square feet of education, care, and research space will represent the lynchpin of Austin’s emerging downtown medical district.

Coming in 2017, the neighboring Dell Seton Medical Center at The University of Texas, built and run by Seton Healthcare Family on UT land through a partnership with Central Health, will be a 211-bed teaching hospital and Level 1 Trauma Center that will replace the existing University Medical Center­­­–Brackenridge.

Beyond that core, UT leaders envision the surrounding area as an innovation zone where biotechnology startups can collaborate with the university and its partners. They hope that type of synergy will nurture a robust health-tech and entrepreneurial ecosystem around the school.

To identify and accelerate research that holds promise, the medical school also has partnered with the Cockrell School of Engineering, the Colleges of Natural Sciences and Pharmacy, and the university’s Office of Technology Commercialization to launch Texas Health Catalyst.

Dell Medical School anatomy lab

UT leaders hope the medical school’s surrounding area will be an innovation zone where biotechnology startups can collaborate with the university and its partners. This rendering depicts an anatomy lab.

Under the initiative, UT faculty members of all disciplines are encouraged to submit proposals for projects that target a specific health need and have the potential to become a usable product. An advisory panel whose members have experience bringing products to market reviews the proposals, and selected applications receive customized guidance.

Finalists selected to move beyond the consultation phase then compete for funding to support key preclinical steps and further advancement.

What sets the catalyst apart is that it connects industry experts with research scientists who may have a truly innovative idea but lack experience with the regulatory approval process or with product development and marketing. The advisory panel draws from the life sciences and health technologies in Austin and from areas including biotech, pharmaceuticals, intellectual property, and regulatory law nationwide.

“The program is a significant step in exposing the best that UT has to offer to Austin’s burgeoning life sciences industry,” says Mini Kahlon, Dell Medical School’s vice dean of strategy and partnerships. The idea, she says, is that by working together, academia and industry will drive each other’s growth.

Fenves, a structural engineer, has a long track record of collaboration with colleagues from other fields. He says he is excited that through Texas Health Catalyst, every part of campus can work with industry to help people get healthy and stay healthy.

“This shows the power,” he says, “of building a future-focused medical school on the strong foundation of UT Austin.”

Learn more about Dell Medical School’s interdisciplinary collaborations and how you can support them.

Make a gift to UT.

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