Learning spaces

What goes into designing a brand-new medical school

Robert Hasty, DO, the dean of Orlando College of Osteopathic Medicine, shares how his team collaborated with an architecture firm to design the new school.


With one in four medical students pursuing a DO designation—a significant increase over the past decade—it’s not a stretch to say that osteopathic medicine is the future of health care. And just as the number of osteopathic medical students is on the rise, so is the number of colleges of osteopathic medicine (COMs). 

It’s been my great privilege to participate in the design and creation of one of the nation’s newest proposed medical schools: the Orlando College of Osteopathic Medicine (OCOM) in Florida. The school was designed by Baker Barrios Architects, which has designed more osteopathic medical schools than any other architecture firm to date.

OCOM has received pre-accreditation status from the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA), with the first class of students set to begin studies in fall 2024. 

When we set out to design a vision for the new school, we were strongly guided by the osteopathic principles and practices that will be taught within its walls. The basic concepts of structure and function, whole-person wellness, and the body-mind-spirit connection played a critical role in all phases of our planning and construction process.

Body of knowledge  

As osteopathic physicians, we understand that a body’s structure and function are seamlessly interwoven, and that principle has likewise applied to design of the school itself.  

The modernist-inspired lobby’s soaring ceilings and massive north-facing windows, for example, reflect the importance of transparency in innovative learning environments. Red and white anatomy-themed paintings by artist John E. McClusky establish a fitting setting that’s both energizing and educational.  

Fostering a sense of permanence, the rebar-reinforced concrete walls are balanced by biophilic elements and massive impact-resistant windows, flanked by dramatic cubes. This leads the interiors to be flooded with natural daylight, which has been shown to enhance learning. A state-of-the-art fitness center with exercise machines, free weights and space for yoga classes provides a convenient on-campus location where faculty and students can practice the healthy lifestyle we espouse to our patients. 

In addition, OCOM’s campus features outdoor learning spaces, lakefront walking paths and built-in concrete seating. These outdoor spaces will serve as “collision zones” to foster conversation, study sessions and collaboration throughout the campus. 

With proper care and maintenance, we hope to see the original structure stand for at least 100 years.

A rendered image of OCOM's campus shows floor-to-ceiling windows and outdoor gathering spaces.

Building connections: Mind over matter 

In the human brain, synapses enable neurons to relay electrical or chemical signals to other neurons, allowing us to think and make new connections. At OCOM, technology facilitates this sort of connectivity; fiber optic cable is woven into the walls, powering everything from messaging to classroom applications. Our take on Apple’s iconic Genius Bar takes center stage just off the main atrium, its staff providing support for the iPad Pros and MacBooks all students and faculty use. 

Technology also powers our simulated learning environments, which include an outpatient office setting with 13 examination rooms and six in-patient settings—including an operating room, an intensive care unit and a labor and delivery room. Outfitted with cameras, the rooms allow faculty to review and evaluate our students. Each includes a scheduler as well, allowing students and faculty to reserve such spaces easily. 

Rather than using cadavers, we will train students with software that mimics the human anatomy and state-of-the-art, sensor-laden mannequins that can talk, drink, breathe and even vomit. Such methods have been shown to produce educational outcomes equal to or better than using cadavers

Pedagogical insights also informed the design of the smaller classrooms, which accommodate eight students and one faculty member, a number that has been shown to produce the best educational outcomes in small-group, problem-based learning environments. Designed specifically for the space, a three-sided table facilitates collaboration among faculty and staff.  

Collaboration was also top of mind when designing the school’s two auditoriums, which will be used for test administration, group discussions and faculty-continuing education. The stadium-style seating arrangements are grouped into rows of two with swivel chairs, allowing students to comfortably consult with classmates behind them. Each seat includes a button that, when pressed, projects the person’s face onto screens at the front and back of the room, allowing presenters to see them without glancing behind them. 

Good spirits

As we all know, medical school can be draining, and those stresses don’t magically disappear when we start practicing medicine. By encouraging wellness in a warm, supportive environment, we aim to produce doctors who are both resilient and empathetic. 

To that end, we’ve included a wide variety of student support services that focus on the body-mind-spirit connection. Humans need “third spaces” away from home and work, so we incorporated a café into the atrium, a library, and on the top floor, a student lounge that faces Disney World’s nightly fireworks show.

In addition, each classroom includes an accommodation room, allowing students to view the same lectures from a more private environment. Students who feel uncomfortable removing items of clothing in front of their peers, as is sometimes required, can elect to participate from the comfort of a distinct, private space with the same capabilities as any other classroom. 

There are also numerous furnished lounges and nondenominational spaces for meditation and prayer. Signs showing the Qibla, the direction in which Muslims pray, are one of the many ways we show that all are welcome here. We also included numerous gender-neutral family bathrooms. 

Supported by the recently created Dr. Kiran C. Patel Institute for Graduate Medical Education, a separate, 501(c)3 nonprofit institution housed at OCOM which endeavors to create 1,000 new residents over the next decade, OCOM has secured affiliations with 20 hospitals, medical centers and health care organizations to support the future training of our students.

Reflecting on our commitment to body, mind and spirit, the result of our design partnership is a college that provides a cutting-edge learning environment for students and faculty who believe in providing holistic, compassionate patient-centered care to the region—and beyond—for generations to come.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

Ideas for boosting exercise and nutrition education in medical school

Learning anatomy in med school: Is it still necessary to work with cadavers?

One comment

  1. J Ross Tanner D.O. FACP

    Impressive article. My sister , also an architect, spent her career designing secondary education work spaces . It is not surprising the reworking of the educational space in medicine. As a medical school graduate of the 80s, boy have things changed from the first day in medicine and now as I approach the last day of practice

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