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Houston Hospitals Ramp Up Focus On Community Facilities To Target Suburbanites

Though the Texas Medical Center is historically the hub for Houston healthcare, as area residents flee from inside the Loop to the suburbs, healthcare facilities are moving with them. 

Houston-area healthcare experts are increasingly orienting long-term plans toward community hospitals and other small healthcare facilities farther from the Medical Center. That comes as a booming number of Houston MSA suburbanites need and demand both routine and specialized care nearer to where they live and work.

Kimball International's Aneetha McLellan, Houston Methodist's Marissa Vasquez and McCarthy Building Cos.' Preston Cope

“We’re starting to have more primary care again close to home,” Houston Methodist Facilities and Construction Project Director Marissa Vasquez said. “Even if you’re a stay-at-home mom or you’re working, you don’t want to have to drive or take a whole day off to go to your doctor. You want the convenience of driving 15 minutes … to go see your doctor, coming back home to work and then going on about your day.”

Vasquez and nearly 30 other healthcare and development experts spoke on the rapidly changing world of healthcare construction, including a move to more localized facilities, at Bisnow’s Nov. 11 National Healthcare South event. 

Suburban hospitals proved key, as major facilities quickly became overcome with coronavirus patients earlier this year and last year. But as Covid-19 numbers fall, healthcare developers are dealing with a changing landscape, finding themselves needing to decide how to build new long-lasting facilities amid post-pandemic and population-driven shifts in needs, requirements and expectations.

In planning new waiting rooms, for example, developers are weighing adding large spaces for patients’ friends and family to gather while maintaining social distancing or, in other cases, designing smaller waiting spaces to reflect larger numbers of people wishing to wait in their cars instead of indoors. 

Additionally, developers are increasingly roping hospitality and retail architects into suburban healthcare discussions to cater to patients and family that would like, for example, to wait in a coffee shop or stay overnight in a hotel while the patient receives care. Standalone medical facilities, regardless of size, experts said, may not be appealing for specialized care without a nearby retail component. That goes for larger facilities too. The Medical Center is tackling that issue with the upcoming TMC3 expansion, adding a 521-room hotel and conference center, as well as a 350-unit multifamily tower to accommodate families of long-term patients and medical center workers.

Core Healthcare Interior's Anthony Standley, Kimball International's Aneetha McLellan, Houston Methodist's Marissa Vasquez, McCarthy Building Cos.' Preston Cope and PhiloWilke's Steve Schultz

Kimball International Executive Director of Design and Innovation Aneetha McLellan said smaller suburban healthcare facilities don’t need to shrink to 1K SF buildings, but the industry can be more thoughtful in eliminating redundancies. 

“I think the current footprint model is antiquated,” McLellan said. “[Facilities] need to be responsive. … [They] need to be able to adapt and flex and accommodate.”  

The vast majority (84%) of American hospitals are classified as community hospitals, the American Hospital Association said this year. Texas has the largest number of community hospitals in the U.S., with 512 such facilities, according to the AHA. If current trends hold, even more are on the way.

Vasquez said hospitals and healthcare facilities are also moving away from reliance on universal rooms or multipurpose spaces for care. Instead, hospital groups are exploring options for flex space like movable walls and more connections for IT equipment and medical equipment. 

The need for functional facilities at smaller footprints comes into special play in the case of microhospitals: suburban licensed hospitals that don’t tend to be built at more than 60K SF. PhiloWilke partner Steve Schultz, who spoke at the panel, said his architecture firm has designed about 15 such hospitals around the country. 

“Bigger is not always better. We’re trying to be very conscious of what that growth needs to be and very much on point on what that extra square footage is going to get used for,” Vasquez said. 

McCarthy Building Cos.' Preston Hodges, Leo A Daly's Rebecca Davis, Johnson Controls' Brendon Buckley, Luminare's Sarma Velamuri and Medistar Corp.'s Santiago Mendoza Jr.

Multifamily developers are bullish on expanding into suburbia, with companies like Allied Orion Group moving into already-growing areas like Richmond, Katy, Pearland and Fulshear, Bisnow reported in March. As those neighborhoods grow, Houston Methodist is building a Cypress hospital for a 2024 opening. Nearby, also in Cypress, HCA Houston Healthcare was slated to open a 110K SF professional building this fall. 

The difficulty with building robust community hospitals and smaller healthcare facilities, Vasquez says, comes when considering the distance to main campuses. 

“The challenge with that comes with supply chain, [including] lab and pharmacy. [We have to increase] those distances to deliver the goods without having to replicate a whole department into the medical office buildings,” Vasquez said.

“We started our model where we had our emergency care centers be more located in our neighborhoods, and that continues to be a good model for us," he added.