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Alberta's new Lego Hospital definitely not just for kids

It is the most beautiful place you could ever hope to never have the misfortune to visit.

For children with a serious injury, a terrible illness, or a chronic disease, the new Alberta Children's Hospital will prove to be an oasis.

The $253-million Calgary facility, slated to open in a few weeks -- ahead of schedule, no less -- is an architectural and medical marvel: a state-of-the-art health-care facility with a homey feeling.

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What distinguishes the Alberta Children's Hospital from other health-care institutions in Canada is not only its newness (it's the first freestanding pediatric hospital built in Canada in 20 years) but its youth-friendly look and feel. Children, parents, nurses and physicians, all patients and caregivers past, present and future, had a say in every aspect of the design.

From the outside, the Alberta Children's looks like it was built with giant Lego blocks. In fact, the young patients have already taken to calling it the Lego Hospital.

The building is surrounded by gardens and apple orchards, all of them accessible from various parts of the facility. Parents with a dying child in palliative care, for example, can slip out for a few moments of reflection in a quiet garden. So too can kids, who sometimes spend months in hospital with grave conditions.

The centrepiece of Alberta Children's is the main lobby, which features a large art installation with flowing water, along with a giant aquarium. (Money for the aquarium was raised by construction workers at the site, part of the $50-million in private donations that has provided the hospital with its superlative little touches.) Visitors will also be struck by the spectacular views -- the rolling Alberta foothills and the luscious Bow River Valley. Every one of the patient rooms, save three intensive-care beds, has a window and plenty of natural light.

The attention to detail is not mere frivolity. The form has a function. The philosophy here is one that health administrators across the country seem to have forgotten: that place matters. The belief, and there is research to back this up, is that patients who are in a peaceful, comfortable place, will heal better and faster.

Natural light is important for the body as well as the spirit. Peace and quiet is a key element in recovery. So, overhead announcements, a ceaseless din at most hospitals, will be virtually non-existent at Alberta Children's. Instead, staff will be equipped with hands-free communications systems. Children and parents who were consulted told hospital administrators that access to the outdoors was essential. Hospitals should not be prisons. Children undergoing treatment also need safe spaces where no one is going to probe or poke them, so there are play areas throughout the hospital. There is also a room where patients can be visited by their pets, from puppies to boa constrictors. There is an auditorium that converts into a movie theatre, with a screen bigger than most Cineplexes. There is a stage for puppet shows, plays and singers. Pet therapy, art therapy and music therapy.

Every room also features a comfortable bed for parents, recognition that family is key part of the care-giving team rather than a nuisance to be shooed into an uncomfortable lounge. Even the emergency room, which can handle 60,000 patients a year, is bright and spacious.

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The attention to detail is also found behind the walls. Nowhere is the adage "cleanliness is next to godliness" more true than in a hospital. Hospital-acquired infections are one of the biggest killers in Canada. At Alberta Children's, patient safety was a guiding principle in design.

There is not a single pipe at a 90-degree angle in the building, because that is where dangerous bacteria such as legionella hide. Each room has a private bath and a separate ventilation system, essential elements of infection control that are all too rare in Canada's aging health-care facilities.

The respiratory and infectious diseases clinic is the one closest to the front door, to limit the spread of germs throughout the hospital. To allow for Calgary's winter climate, there is also a heated parkade that leads directly into the hospital.

There is no deep fryer in any of the restaurants or kitchens, and no fast-food outlets. In fact, the only commercial outlet in the building is Good Earth, a coffee shop that sells healthy foods. The vending machines have no chocolate bars or chips. The sprawling five-storey facility has just 133 beds, based on the theory that hospital beds should be reserved for the sickest of the sick.

Most of the space at the new hospital consists of outpatient clinics. There are more than 30 specialized clinics, from ophthalmology through to mental health. Most surgery is now day surgery; even the bulk of cancer treatment is done on an outpatient basis.

As nice as the new facilities are, more important still is the care, and those who deliver care. The staff at Alberta Children's is top notch, and almost certainly will improve. Increasingly, nurses, physicians and other health professionals are looking for quality of life. Work environment matters.

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In addition to spending on infrastructure, Alberta Children's is spending an additional $20-million on research chairs, to attract top-flight pediatric researchers and clinicians.

In short, the hospital is setting a new standard for the quality of the physical space, work environment, and patient care.

Canadians in other parts of the country should not gasp in awe from afar. They should expect no less. The Alberta Children's Hospital has been built not because the province is awash in oil money, but because the provincial government has its priorities straight.

If we are going to deliver quality patient care, ensure patient safety and provide a reasonable work environment for health professionals, investing in infrastructure is a must.

Too many of our health-care institutions are ramshackle, toxic places; they are depressing, light-deprived hovels and cesspools of infectious illness.

The kids at the new Lego hospital have shown us how to do it right.

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