just what the doctor ordered

Houston recognized among the best hospital cities in the nation

Houston, home to the largest medical center in the world, was ranked among the best cities for health care in the country. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

As home to Texas Medical Center — the world's largest medical complex — it stands to reason that Houston ranks among the country's best cities for health care. A new study bolsters that notion, but it also points out that several health care measures in Houston need some TLC.

The study, conducted by digital health care provider Medbelle, ranks Houston as the ninth best "hospital city" in the United States. Medbelle sifted through data in three categories (health care infrastructure, quality of health care and access to health care) to develop the ranking. Within those categories, Medbelle examined factors like quality of medical education, number of hospital beds, shortage of nurses, efficiency of cancer treatment, and prevalence of mental health specialists.

"Houston is known internationally as the home of one of the best medical communities in the world," the City of Houston declares.

In the Medbelle study, Boston landed at No. 1 in the U.S.; Tokyo took the global crown. At No. 13, Dallas was the only other Texas city to earn a place on the U.S. list.

Medbelle says it compiled the ranking to highlight regional hospital "ecosystems" rather than specific hospitals. The Houston area has more than 85 hospitals.

Houston's hospital ecosystem scored 94.92 out of 100, yet sits in next-to-last place for access to health care (48.83 out of 100), Medbelle notes. Daniel Kolb, co-founder and managing director of Medbelle, says this means that while Houston enjoys one of the best medical infrastructures in the world, a relatively small percentage of people in the region can take advantage of it.

In 2018, nearly 1 in 5 residents of the Houston area (18.6 percent) lacked health insurance, the U.S. Census Bureau says. That's the highest rate of uninsured residents among the country's 25 most populous metro areas. Affordability and availability continue to exacerbate the health insurance predicament in Houston and around the country.

"The single biggest issue in health care for most Americans is that their health costs are growing much faster than their wages are," Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, says in a release. "Costs are prohibitive when workers making $25,000 a year have to shell out $7,000 a year just for their share of family premiums."

For those who can afford medical care, the Houston area boasts some of the best hospitals in the U.S. MD Anderson Cancer Center reigns as the country's top cancer hospital, for instance.

In May, The Leapfrog Group, a nonprofit representing large employers in the U.S., assigned its highest grade — "A" — to these nine hospitals in the Houston area:

  • HCA Houston Healthcare (Kingwood)
  • Houston Methodist Hospital
  • Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital
  • Houston Methodist West Hospital
  • Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital
  • Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center
  • Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Hospital
  • Tomball Regional Medical Center
  • West Houston Medical Center

From another perspective, U.S. News & World Report ranks Houston Methodist Hospital as the best hospital in the Houston area, followed by Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, Memorial Hermann Greater Heights Hospital, Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, and Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital.

Meanwhile, Houston-area physicians hold Texas Children's Hospital West Campus in the highest regard among the region's hospitals, trailed by Houston Methodist West Hospital, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Texas Children's Hospital, and Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital.

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Building Houston

 
 

This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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