AI And Robotics Are Here To Stay. Houston’s Healthcare And Medical Office Industry Are Racing To Evolve
As Houston’s population grows, so does its medical care needs. Keeping up with development, remodeling and the latest disruptive technology is no small feat, though those involved in local healthcare systems say they are up to the challenge.
That was the sentiment at Bisnow’s Houston Healthcare Conference at the Marriott Marquis Houston last week, in which the roles of artificial intelligence and robotics were hot topics. Panelists said technology in the medical industry is becoming more critical, both to the design and build of medical facilities and to how those facilities function and execute tasks formerly handled by full-time employees.
“We’re seeing the use of AI through algorithmic data, for instance in diagnostics and imaging, that can provide quicker response times to providers, then translate that to patients, as well as accuracy and readings,” Perkins & Will principal Andrew Koska said. “What we do every day as designers and architects, as well as the practitioners, [is watch AI] being more and more pushed into the design of the facilities we're doing today.”
The event included representatives from Houston Methodist Hospital, Memorial Hermann, Texas Children’s Hospital and MD Anderson Cancer Center who said technology is helping to improve patient outcomes and provide additional manpower.
That is important as Houston grows and systems have to meet the increasing demand for healthcare, Houston Methodist Cypress Senior Vice President and CEO Trent Fulin said. But it is keeping hospitals and those in medical real estate on their toes.
“We have to keep up with where innovation and technology is going,” Fulin said. “So that means that some of our older buildings may not have the infrastructure from an IT perspective that they need to be able to utilize the great innovation and technology that's happening.”
That technology first comes into significant play when converting or renovating a building for medical use, said Paul Whitson, senior principal at HOK.
“A big threat in renovation projects is what’s hidden. We can’t find what we can’t see, what’s behind the walls,” Whitson said. “We now have, in-house, a laser scanning team to go in before we do any renovation project. With just a handheld device, [we] get a full 3D model of a space in a couple hours. … We can integrate those into the design.”
Then there is the technology that will be deployed in healthcare offices and hospitals, meaning builders and designers are getting all parties involved earlier in the design process to ensure the space will fit current and future needs, Austin Commercial Area Manager Pam Brink said.
“Accounting for that flexibility of the unknown and beginning to be known, [we are] engaging early and partnering with our technology and engineering to provide a really robust infrastructure with a lot of backbone and flexibility,” she said.
Harris Health System has turned to technology to help man its central pharmacy, utilizing four robots to process about 2 million prescriptions each year, Harris Health System President and CEO Esmaeil Porsa said.
“The question was asked: ‘What would happen if those robots fail?’” Porsa said. “The answer is 90 [full-time employees], nine-zero, is what it would take to replace what those robots are doing.”
Generative AI is also becoming engrained in daily work functions. Porsa learned that patients prefer AI communication in their health portal back-and-forths because it tends to have more empathy and compassion than doctors’ written communications, he said.
“It's interesting, but I think it also kind of makes sense,” Porsa said. “AI doesn’t have to worry about the paperwork. It’s not tired. … [It is] able to really focus on generating a response that addresses the question in a much more empathetic way.”
Despite the benefits of technology for some patient care, a shift away from human collaboration isn't always ideal.
It turned out to be a detriment for nurses in some cases since the start of the pandemic, said Anne-Marie Savage, assistant vice president of the Women's Pavilion for Texas Children’s Hospital.
“We had that old concept of ‘Let's get rid of the nurse's station and decentralize the work and put the computers in the rooms and outside the room,’ and then there was no place for the team to gaggle,” Savage said. “What a missed opportunity. And we found that with Covid, the collaboration is gone.”
Thanks to an ongoing renovation, Texas Children's has begun bringing the teams back together, she said. Sometimes a human touch is more cost-effective.
“There's efficiencies, there's improved patient outcomes, maybe even reductions in lengths of stay that would help to support the bottom dollar,” Savage said.
Those involved with future healthcare renovations or construction should reach out to clinicians and “the people doing the work” to help meet needs and elevate patients’ needs, she said.
Practical improvements outside of technology are still important as well. Medical office buildings in Houston have far fewer amenities than other newer office facilities, said Ashley Cassel Byrd, Transwestern senior vice president of healthcare advisory services, adding that tenants are seeking more amenitized medical office buildings.
“You have to really try to think of one with a gym,” Cassel Byrd said. “So developers, owners, let’s put some amenities in these buildings.”
“Green space is becoming more [valuable],” Laher said. “I mean, just places to look at with environs, water features, trails, small park areas for reflection.”
With a doctor shortage and other challenges facing the industry, investing in medical office can reap rewards. There is inherently lower risk adding a medical component to an office building than other asset types, Northmarq Senior Vice President and Managing Director Warren Hitchcock said.
“If you have an office building, it might as well be medical,” he said.