Students enrolled in St. Ambrose University’s physical therapy, occupational therapy and nursing programs have a new, $11.5 million, state-of-the-art facility to learn in when classes begin next week.

The 40,000-square-foot Health Sciences Building offers laboratories where students can gain practical experience. 

For example, one laboratory replicates a 12-bed hospital ward, complete with the wall boards behind the beds where oxygen and other health-care equipment is mounted. State-of-the-art mannequins are programmed to mimic a variety of health conditions, from high blood pressure to cardiac arrest.

Another laboratory functions as an apartment, so occupational therapy students can practice home-health-care techniques. Other laboratories are set up as physical therapy gyms or places where occupational therapists can fashion switches for electronic devices that help the disabled live more independently.

“What’s really nice is to be in a space that has been designed for the purpose of the programs,” said Sandy Cassady, associate dean of the College of Education and Health Sciences. “And with all of these programs under one roof, our students will have a better feel for the other professions that they will be working with in the field, and that translates into better outcomes for patients.”

Previously, the health science programs were scattered throughout the campus. Occupational therapy and physical therapy were located in Hayes Hall, which previously had been used as a residence hall.

“We’re all in shock about how nice this building is,” said Danielle Dunnwald, a student from Waterloo, Iowa, who is working on her master’s degree in occupational therapy. “It’s so much better than what we had. We used to have to make things up; we’d use a chair and pretend it’s a bathtub.

“This building will prepare us so much more for our actual tasks out in the field.”

Making the building a reality was a joint effort between the university and Genesis Health System. Genesis donated almost $3 million toward the building’s construction and also donated the land, valued at $750,000, which is located on the hospital’s west campus at Marquette and Lombard streets in Davenport.

“Students will be able to move seamlessly from the classroom to Genesis Medical Center and work with mentors to gain the experience that will benefit our patients today and tomorrow,” said Doug Cropper, president and chief executive officer of Genesis Health System. “And, our current employees who wish to advance their educations will have easy access to classes while maintaining their work schedules at Genesis.”

Demand for health sciences graduates is very high. According to an article published in the January 2010 edition of the Journal of Advanced Nursing, it is estimated that the number of nurses leaving the profession will exceed the number of new nurses sometime next year, and the shortage of nurses will number 340,000 in the United States by the year 2020.

According to a December 2009 analysis by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 581,500 new nursing positions will be created through 2018, increasing the size of that work force by 22 percent. Employment opportunities are expected to grow much faster than those of other professions, the analysis concluded.

The bureau also estimated that the employment of occupational therapists will increase 27 percent or more between 2004 and 2014.

“Our partnership with St. Ambrose University represents a wise investment that will ensure a reliable supply of well-trained, compassionate health care professionals to serve future generations of Quad-Citians,” Cropper said. “Through this partnership, St. Ambrose and Genesis will prepare the region’s future health care professionals in a setting where the students will have access to the latest techniques and ideas in both classroom and clinical education.”

Across the river at the Trinity College of Nursing and Health Sciences in Rock Island, Susan Wajert recently took over as chancellor. She hopes to gradually double the number of graduates there in coming years.

“A big part of health care reform is work force development,” Cassady said.