Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Twenty years ago, healthcare planners tucked research parks into suburban environments, away from the buzz of the city.

Today, innovative healthcare centers serve as the centerpiece of urban cores like the new Dell Medical School and the Dell Seton Medical Center and campus at 15th street and Red River in downtown Austin.

“It’s about creating that nexus for people to come together and be adventurous that’s what we are hoping to create here,” said Dr. Clay Johnston, dean of the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Dell Medical School wants to nurture an environment to improve healthcare with ideas from outside of academia, Johnston said.

“It’s less about the knowledge it’s more about the adventurousness of the people,” Johnston said. “An adventurous attitude. Bring them together so that they are bumping into each other in ways that they wouldn’t in suburban business parks then great things happen. It’s been proven over and over again.”

Johnston participated in a panel discussion on healthcare in Austin put on by Bisnow, an online real estate news site, Tuesday morning at the JW Marriott in downtown Austin. Rick Rome, senior vice president with WSP+ccrd, a hospital development firm, moderated the panel, which focused on the Dell Medical District and Innovation Zone.

Central Health will be redeveloping its 14.2 acres six block downtown Brackenridge Campus once the Dell Seton Medical Center opens in May of 2017, said CEO Patricia Young Brown. It has posted master plans to its website which include architectural renderings of its mixed use development and park.

“We expect our property to serve as a hub of innovation activities,” Brown said.

And the new Dell Seton Medical Center will open on May 17, 2017, said Greg Hartman, president of Seton Healthcare.

It’s about the same size as the existing Brackenridge Hospital but it’s built with the latest technology and it’s built to be a teaching hospital, he said.

“The rooms will be larger to allow students and residents to come into the space,” he said. “There are places for people to think and to have creative sessions.”

The Dell Seton Medical Center will be focused on entrepreneurial activities and creating new revenue streams and businesses including joint ventures and startup companies through a new Seton Holding company, Hartman said.

Business relationships need to be a part of phase one, Johnston said. But the overall focus is to provide excellent healthcare to everyone in Travis County, he said.

The healthcare center aims to take a big picture approach to keeping people healthy by everyone working together as a team, Johnston said.

“We need that business basis for the innovations to be able to plug in,” he said.

The Dell Medical School’s health learning building opened this year and a new 300,000 square foot research building will be done in January, Johnston said. IDEO designers helped plan the buildings. The research building is connected by a bridge to Dell’s clinical building which will offer outpatient services with Seton and its health learning building. The clinic building will be completed in May of 2017. The first Dell Medical School class of 50 students began training three weeks ago.

“We’re not creating a traditional medical school because there are a lot of those out there and they are stuck in the way they do things,” Johnston said.

“Our charge is different from the typical medical school and the opportunity we have to think about what healthcare could be is very different. We think our play is more about how we create an ecosystem to help others find solutions to health problems, not just healthcare problems, but also problems upstream,” Johnston said. “We will find ways in which they can be paid for their success. So this is inherently entrepreneurial which means our curriculum needs to look different. It also means the success of an innovation zone around us is absolutely critical to our success.”

Digital health is going to be a key area in the future and one in which Austin can be front and center, Johnston said.

“Life sciences is a hotspot in the community,” said Michele Skelding, senior vice president of innovation at the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber and its members took field trips to look at innovation zones in other cities like Boston, San Francisco and Toronto, she said. They drew inspiration from those centers, but Austin is seeking to create something original, she said.

“We are going to make this a true transformative aspect of the city,” she said.

Austin is creating a healthier way of living by encouraging people to walk more, said Larry Speck, senior principal with Page architectural firm. Walking is at the center of the planning and design of the medical school, he said.

In particular, Waller Creek, what has been a ditch that ran through Austin, is being transformed, Speck said.

The Dell Medical School is “bringing, a green, soft quality, right into the middle of the school which isn’t true of most medical schools which are asphalt jungles, they are ugly, they are stressful, they are disorienting in a time when you are vulnerable and you shouldn’t be subject to that,” Speck said.

It will also feature hike and bike trails and it incorporates Waterloo Park. The development will be certified under the sustainable sites initiative, he said. The district will have a place for people to live, work and have entertainment. It will also feature a 15 block pedestrian walkway that will go from 11th street to Dean Keeton that is a landscaped environment, he said. The district will have a bohemian vibe and will incorporate the music scene and all of Austin’s creativity, he said.

“There’s no other place where we can attempt this big transformation,” Johnston said. It’s not just about the space and buildings, but the way the care is being delivered and the focus on keeping people healthy, he said.

“We have this unique opportunity to transform the way health and healthcare are delivered,” he said.