As we enter year two of the pandemic, the way hospitals function now and in the future is forever changed. Photo via Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a drastic effect on every industry throughout the world. Additionally, we have all experienced multiple changes to our daily routine such as schools implementing virtual and hybrid learning while reconfiguring classrooms to promote social distancing and fitness studios closing off every other cardio machine and bench.

But no industry has had to pivot and innovate more than health care, which has been ground zero for the pandemic.

The pace of innovation for hospitals has been at breakneck speed — from the evolution of new treatment protocols to the need to reconfigure physical spaces to support an influx of patients while also promoting a healing environment during this unprecedented time.

Hospitals look and feel a lot different today because of significant modifications that have been made to care for patients and limit exposure to the virus. While a number of these modifications occurred under temporary state waivers, some of these changes may be here to stay.

Adding windows and alternative communication options to every room

Hospitals found that every room is valuable during a pandemic. Identifying and converting any available space, including private rooms like offices, break rooms, and conference rooms, was essential to accommodate an influx of patients during a surge. And when dealing with a highly infectious area, it is imperative to maximize staff and physician efforts while also safely minimizing the amount of time that staff members enter and exit rooms.

One way to do this is by adding windows in doors to promote patient visibility. This increased visibility can improve patient safety while conserving critical personal protective equipment. However, a down side to limiting the amount of times staff members enter and exit rooms is reduced valuable communication opportunities, which is why alternative mechanisms to communicate with patients must be in place in addition to increased visibility.

Implementing additional negative pressure capabilities

Like adding windows to every patient door, negative pressure rooms exist to keep non-contaminated areas free of airborne pathogens. In a negative pressure room, the air in the room is pulled into a room instead of being pushed out of a room, which is very effective in preventing airborne contaminants from escaping the room and infecting other people. But hospitals are not traditionally built with significant numbers of negative pressure rooms as demand for these types of rooms has historically been low.

In addition, the traditional way to design a facility is to spread negative pressure rooms throughout the hospital instead of consolidating them onto specific units. Although not required for COVID-19 patients, negative pressure rooms are helpful in ensuring maximum capabilities within different zones. In instances where negative pressure rooms could not be created, HEPA filters can still be used to "scrub" the air.

Converting anesthesia machines to ventilators

Anesthesia machines are capable of providing life-sustaining mechanical ventilation to patients with respiratory failure from diseases like COVID-19. They are used for this purpose every day in the operating room. Although they are not recommended for long-term ventilator needs, anesthesia ventilators can be modified to provide ventilatory support and are an obvious first-line backup when there are not sufficient ICU ventilators to meet patient care needs.

Building barriers to increase the safety of care

Plexiglass barriers have become a common sight in daily life including the front desks at hospitals. However, hospitals have taken it a step further and have either built or sourced equipment such as intubation boxes, which can be used during the intubation process, which consists of placing a breathing tube into a patient's airway and then connecting it to a ventilator or anesthesia machine if the patient is having surgery. Intubations are often done by an anesthesiologist, intensive care or emergency room provider; however, traditionally we had not often dealt with highly-contagious patients, so providing a higher level of protection is an important step in the containment of this type of virus.

The way healthcare providers enter and exit a COVID patient's room is as important as the proper use of PPE. In a pre-pandemic world, hospitals didn't specifically create spaces or areas within patient floors for staff to remove and discard their PPE and there wasn't any visible signage warning them that they were about to enter or leave a high-risk area. Many hospitals across the country have implemented color-coded zones within their COVID floors to caution staff of the type of precautions they should be taking at any given time. The creation of zones helps to protect staff and reduce contamination opportunities within the unit itself. Red, yellow and green zones using visual markers can be created to help provide staff designated areas that certain processes must be followed such as where PPE must be worn, where it can be donned and doffed and where PPE should not be worn.

Managing complex logistical challenges

Hospitals have been challenged with having to continue to provide uninterrupted care for COVID and non-COVID patients during the pandemic, while also handling, storing and administering vaccines. Hospitals have been at the forefront of the vaccine distribution system, working closely with state and federal officials to distribute vaccines on a large scale and reach the underserved populations that were hit hardest by COVID-19. For example, Baylor St. Luke's chose Texas Southern University, located within the Third Ward of Houston, as a vaccine site to reach communities of color and leverage its accessible location and the school's pharmacy students and faculty. And more recently, the hospital worked with Rice University to administer vaccines at its football stadium, a large venue that can be accessed easily through public transportation. Having these offsite venues with ample space has helped alleviate the space burden on hospitals during the vaccination efforts. Non-traditional healthcare delivery locations like these allow health care providers to administer more doses, closer to targeted communities than would be possible at a single hospital.

As we enter year two of the pandemic, the way hospitals function now and in the future is forever changed. Hospitals continue to learn and adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in case of another pandemic, hospitals are better equipped to quickly pivot to provide care for a surge of patients and to assist in the recovery efforts.

------

Liz Youngblood is president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health.

This week's innovators to know includes Kenneth Liao of Baylor St. Luke's, Serafina Lalany of Houston Exponential, and Nick Cardwell of McCord. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — from robotics in health care to smart city technology — all making headlines in Houston this week.

Kenneth Liao, chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center,

Houston cardiac surgeon outpaces much of the country in game-changing robotics

Dr. Kenneth Liao, chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, is one of around 50 surgeons in the country considered experts of this new surgery robotics tool. Photo courtesy of Baylor St. Luke's

Dr. Kenneth Liao is the only cardiatric surgeon in Houston — and one of only around 50 in the world — who uses a specific robot to conduct heart surgeries. The robot, known as the da Vinci, was first designed to assist in battlefield procedures.

Now on its fourth generation, the robot allows surgeons like Liao to treat heart diseases and conditions that typically would require open heart surgery through a one-to-two inch incision near the ribs. In many surgeries, it also allows surgeons to keep a patient's heart beating, lowering the risk of stroke.

"It's a totally game changing component to conventional surgery," Liao says. Read more.

Serafina Lalany, chief of staff at Houston Exponential 

Serafina Lalany joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the Listies. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Houston tech companies deserve a shoutout, and, after mulling it over for quite a while, Serafina Lalany and her team at Houston Exponential are making it happen with The Listies, a new awards program.

"The idea for The Listies has been in the back of our minds for a long time," says Lalany, chief of staff at HX, on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There has always been a need in the ecosystem to celebrate the wins and vibrant culture we have here. This is an opportunity to pay homage to that."

The nomination deadline has been extended for the awards. Nominate a worthy startup, person, investor or corporate by Friday, November 6. Click here to submit. And, click here to stream the episode and read more.

Nick Cardwell, vice president of digital innovation at McCord

A new executive hire for McCord is going to focus on bringing smart city technology to Generation Park. Rendering courtesy of McCord

At 4,200 acres, the Generation Park master-planned development is evolving into its own ecosystem of sorts — one that has a huge opportunity for tech and smart city initiatives. Houston-based real estate developer, McCord, has hired Nick Cardwell as vice president of digital innovation. In the newly created role, Cardwell will be tasked with bringing data-driven solutions, digital transformation, and other smart city innovation to Generation Park.

"McCord's vision for Generation Park is the future of commercial development, pushing digital innovation into the forefront and leveraging cutting-edge technologies throughout their portfolio. I am beyond thrilled to join the McCord team and help make that vision a reality," says Cardwell, in the release. "Through the use of experiences, data, and collaborations, we will accelerate learnings and, in turn, advance resources that will truly improve people's lives." Read more.

Dr. Kenneth Liao, chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, is one of around 50 surgeons in the country considered experts of this new surgery robotics tool. Photo courtesy of Baylor St. Luke's

Houston cardiac surgeon outpaces much of the country in game-changing robotics

matters of the heart

Dr. Kenneth Liao is pioneering a less invasive form of heart surgery at a time when distanced medicine has become more important than ever with the help of six team members and one robot.

As the chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, Liao has performed 116 robotic cardiac surgeries since coming on board in 2019 (as of press time). With Liao at the helm, Baylor St. Luke's has become a top cardiac robotics program in the country and is the only hospital in Houston to practice this highly-specialized form of surgery.

Liao's four-armed robot friend is known as the da Vinci robotic system and was first designed to assist in battlefield procedures. Now on its fourth generation, the robot allows surgeons like Liao to treat heart diseases and conditions that typically would require open heart surgery through a one-to-two inch incision near the ribs. In many surgeries, it also allows surgeons to keep a patient's heart beating, lowering the risk of stroke.

"It's a totally game changing component to conventional surgery," Liao says, who's one of about 50 surgeons in the country with his level of command over the tool.

Once inside, the da Vinci robot uses tiny instruments to perform surgical practices from suturing to cutting to tying a knot all within the rigid chest cage, which in a typical open heart surgery would have to be broken to perform such tasks.

The surgeon, who's seated about 10 feet away from the patient, controls the tools through a joystick connected to a computer console that shows an enhanced 3D view of the patient's chest. Liao says the screen provides a better visual of the heart than if he was seeing it with his own eyes, as it magnifies the field of surgery tenfold. This method also gives surgeons a better view of areas of the heart that they cannot easily see from above during traditional procedures.

The da Vinci can be used for bypass, grafting, pacemaker, and valve repair surgeries, and it has been proven to result in less blood loss and a faster, less painful recovery. Similar technology has also been adopted for prostate and gynecological surgeries. "It gives you the advantage of minimizing the trauma," Liao says.

And though the da Vinci was developed years before the pandemic, it puts patients at a lower risk of exposure to any outside contaminants, Liao adds, as the robot alone is interfacing with the patient through a small port, compared to doctors, nurses, and assistants hovering over an open chest cavity.

"Technology will theoretically reduce a patient's exposure to COVID in the operation room," he says. "I think that's common sense."

Liao was an early adopter of robotics, when the technology was much less user friendly. He performed the first robotic heart surgery in the state of Minnesota in 2003 and has worked with the developers of the da Vinci ever since to help improve the product after many other surgeons dismissed it.

He says today there is a renewed interest in the highly technical process and he believes it will become an emphasis for younger surgeons.

"This generation of surgeons are young and they are very indebted to computer technology and games. For them looking at screens and controlling the hand joystick control is much more familiar than for the older generation that was trained 20 years ago." he says.

The incredible technology helps, too. "A lot of times, as surgeons, we train in the old way. It's very difficult to change the systems," he says. "You need a major technology revolution to change the teaching and training."

Houston Methodist stood out yet again on an annual best hospitals report, but several other Houston institutions were recognized as well. Courtesy of Methodist Hospital/Facebook

New report recognizes best hospitals in Houston

better than all the rest

Hospitals across Houston were ranked by their patient care, patient safety, outcomes, nursing, advanced technology and reputation in an annual report that identifies the top medical facilities in the country.

U.S. News & World Report released its 31st annual best hospital rankings this week, which included both adult and children's hospital tracks across several categories. The report released both overall and local rankings after evaluating over 4,500 medical centers nationwide in 16 specialties, and 134 hospitals were ranked in at least one specialty.

For the ninth year in a row, the top hospital in Houston and Texas, according to the report, is Houston Methodist, which ranked at No. 20 nationally and made the report's Honor Roll.

"Our U.S. News rankings are especially meaningful right now as this has been an exceptionally difficult time for our health care workers," says Marc Boom, M.D., president and CEO of Houston Methodist, in a news release. "We have always served our community by providing exceptional care — during the COVID-19 pandemic and before. It's a true testament to our commitment to being unparalleled."

Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital tied for No. 4 in Houston and No. 6 (three-way tie) in Texas. Additionally, the hospital was recognized on the top lists for 11 specialties:

  • No. 12 for cardiology/heart surgery
  • No. 13 for orthopedics
  • No. 14 for gastroenterology/GI surgery
  • No. 17 for cancer
  • No. 19 (tie) for nephrology
  • No. 20 for pulmonology and lung surgery
  • No. 23 for neurology/neurosurgery
  • No. 26 for geriatrics
  • No. 26 (tie) for gynecology
  • No. 28 for diabetes and endocrinology
  • No. 49 for ear, nose and throat

The second-best hospital in Houston on this year's ranking was Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, which was also named the No. 3 hospital in the state.

"At Baylor St. Luke's, we are transforming the way we deliver care for our patients through groundbreaking technologies and a multidisciplinary approach that allows us to give the best possible care to patients and their families," says Doug Lawson, CEO of St. Luke's Health, in a news release. "I praise our dedicated staff and physicians for helping us achieve this recognition."

Baylor St. Luke's also made an appearance across five specialties:

  • No. 17 for cardiology/heart surgery
  • No. 21 for gastroenterology/GI surgery
  • No. 21 for neurology/neurosurgery
  • No. 27 for cancer
  • No. 47 for geriatrics

"This is a great report that confirms the efforts of our partnership at Baylor St. Luke's and our affiliated hospitals to provide unsurpassed care to patients, conduct research that will change lives and train the next generation of physicians", says Dr. Paul Klotman, president, CEO, and executive dean at Baylor College of Medicine. "Baylor St. Luke's high ranking in Texas is in parallel with Baylor College of Medicine being the highest ranked medical school in Texas. Together, we are an outstanding academic medical center and learning health system."

Memorial Hermann - Texas Medical Center came in No. 3 in Houston and No. 5 in Texas. The hospital ranked in one adult specialty and two children's specialties.

  • No. 43 for ear, nose and throat (adult)
  • No. 22 for cardiology/heart surgery (pediatric)
  • No. 31 for neurology/neurosurgery (pediatric)

On the children's hospital track, Houston's Texas Children's Hospital ranked as No. 4 nationally and was recognized in all 10 pediatric specialties, which included:

  • No. 1 for pediatric cardiology/heart surgery
  • No. 2 for pediatric nephrology
  • No. 2 for pediatric neurology/neurosurgery
  • No. 3 for pediatric pulmonology and lung surgery
  • No. 4 for pediatric cancer
  • No. 5 for pediatric diabetes and endocrinology
  • No. 5 for pediatric gastroenterology/GI surgery
  • No. 6 for pediatric urology
  • No. 10 for neonatology
  • No. 15 for pediatric orthopedics

Zooming in on the specific specialties, several other Houston hospitals in addition to these top tier hospitals, secured spots in the top 10 rankings.

University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center was ranked No. 1 nationally for adult cancer treatment. Additionally, the hospital made an appearance in six other adult specialties and one pediatric specialty.

  • No. 4 for ear, nose and throat
  • No. 6 for urology
  • No. 14 for gynecology
  • No. 27 for diabetes and endocrinology
  • No. 41 for geriatrics
  • No. 46 for gastroenterology/GI surgery
  • No. 38 for cancer (pediatric)
TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston ranked No. 3 nationally for rehabilitation.
For all 31 years, The Menninger Clinic has been recognized as a top hospital in the psychiatric speciality. This year, the clinic ranked at No. 9 nationally.

"Our clinical teams provide personalized care with the right blend of art and science. We have pioneered measuring the effectiveness of this treatment, and the results consistently demonstrate that patients sustain their well-being for at least a year after they leave Menninger," says Armando Colombo, president and CEO, in a news release. "Going forward, we will improve access to make it easier for more Texans to access these life-changing results."

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

Houston health center working with new study that uses app to track long-term COVID-19 effects

pandemic innovation

Aided by technology, medical sleuths at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 as part of a national study.

At the heart of the study is an app that allows patients who have shown COVID-19 symptoms and have been tested for COVID-19 to voluntarily share their electronic health records with researchers. The researchers then can monitor long-term symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, depression, and cardiovascular problems.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the INSPIRE trial (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS COV-2 Infections Registry). Researchers are recruiting study participants from Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. They want to expand recruitment to urgent care clinics in the Houston area.

Aside from accessing patients' data through the Hugo Health platform, UTHealth researchers will ask participants to fill out brief follow-up surveys every three months over the course of 18 months. The study complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that protects patients' information from being disclosed without their knowledge.

"This is a very novel and important study," Dr. Ryan Huebinger, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School and co-principal investigator of the study, says in a news release.

In a study like this, researchers typically must see a patient in person or at least reach out to them.

"Using this platform is novel because we don't have to schedule additional appointments or ask questions like 'How long were you hospitalized?' – we can automatically see that in their records and survey submissions," Huebinger says.

Mandy Hill, associate professor in the McGovern Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and the study's co-principal investigator, says about one-fourth of the people in the study will be local residents who didn't test positive for COVID-19.

"That group will be our control group to be able to compare things like prevalence and risk factors," Huebinger says.

Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, must have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and must have been tested for COVID-19 in the past four weeks.

"This is not going to be the last pandemic. The more information we can gather across communities now will give us a leg up when the next pandemic happens," Hill says, "so that we can be more prepared to take steps toward prevention."

Researchers hope to sign up at least 300 study participants in Houston. The entire INSPIRE trial seeks to enroll 4,800 participants nationwide. The study is supposed to end in November 2022.

"There's such great potential for numerous research findings to come out of this study. We could find out if people in Houston are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms differently than other parts of the country, whether minorities are more affected by long-hauler symptoms, and if certain interventions work better than others," Hill says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is financing the study. Aside from UTHealth, academic institutions involved in the research are:

  • University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
  • Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • University of Washington in Seattle
  • Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Francisco