Meet MIA — Houston Methodist's new voice technology assistant. Photo via Getty Images

Hey, MIA. Start surgery.

These are the words Houston doctors are learning to say in the operating rooms, thanks to a first-of-its-kind voice technology developed by the Houston Methodist's Center for Innovation in collaboration with Amazon Web Services. In the same way we use programs like Alexa or Siri to make our everyday tasks easier, the Methodist Intelligent Automation, or MIA, is allowing medical professionals to improve the way they interact both with technology and patients alike.

"There's been a push in the industry for a long time that people sitting behind computers and typing and staring at a computer screen is inadequate," says Houston Methodist Chief Innovation Officer Roberta Schwartz. "There's been a desire to return people back to each other rather than physicians and look at a screen and patients look at a doctor looking at a screen."

Currently in its pilot phase, MIA is working to do just that through two key functions that shift the way medical professionals work in what Schwartz calls the "era of electronic medical records."

The first is through operating room voice commands. Here medical professionals can run through a series or checklists and initiate important actions, such as starting timers or reviewing time of anesthesia, through voice instead of by typing or clicking, which can become cumbersome during lengthy and highly detailed surgeries. Information is displayed on a large 80-inch TV in the operating suite and following surgery all of the data captured is imported into the traditional EMR program. The technology has been prototyped in two Houston Methodist O.R. suites so far and the hub aims to trial it in a simulation surgery by the end of the year.

Additionally, the hub is developing ambient listening technology to be used in a clinical setting with the same goal. Houston Methodist and AWS have partnered with Dallas-based Pariveda to create specialized hardware that (after gaining patient permission) will listen into doctor-patient conversations, transcribe the interaction, and draft a note that is then coded and imported directly into the EMR.

"For EMR the feedback is that it's clunky, it's click-heavy, it's very task oriented," says Josh Sol, who leads digital and clinical innovation for Houston Methodist. "Our goal with the Center for Innovation and this technology hub is to really transform that terminology and bring back this collaboration and the patient-physician relationship by removing the computer but still capturing all the pertinent information."

The ambient listening technology is further off and is currently in user acceptance testing with clinicians.

"They've had some great feedback, whether it's changing how the note is created, changing the look and feel of the application itself," Sol adds. "All feedback is good feedback at this point. So we've taken it in, we prioritize the work, and we continue to improve the application."

And the hub doesn't plan to stop there. Schwartz and Sol agree that the next step for this type of medical technology will be patient facing. They envision that in the near future appointment or surgery prep can be done through Alexa push notifications and medication reminders or follow up assessments could be done via voice applications.

"It's all going to be of tremendous value and it's coming," Schwartz says. "We may be taking the first baby steps, but each one of these voice technologies for our patients is out there on the horizon."

Hospital systems and nonprofits are looking for ways to reach patients virtually as face-to-face interactions continue to be limited due to the coronavirus. Getty Images

Houston medical organizations pivot to telemedicine and remote care amid COVID-19 crisis

online care

Hospitals across the country are trying their best to limit the number of people coming in and out — but how does that affect patients in need of non-COVID-19 treatment? Hospital systems are implementing new technology and training so that physicians can use telemedicine to connect virtually.

In March following telemedicine training, Houston Methodist began seeing hundreds more daily telemedicine sessions across its system, Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist, previously told InnovationMap. And other hospital systems are following suit.

HCA Houston Healthcare's CareNow locations have implemented Virtual Care, a telehealth urgent care service. Patients can check in online during the urgent care center's operating hours to gain one-on-one access to care from a CareNow physician, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant. Providers, via video chat, will evaluate minor conditions and can prescribe non-narcotic medications when indicated.

If the situation calls for it, providers will tell the patient to come onsite to continue care.

"Virtual Care is an extension of our clinical urgent care services and fully supports our purpose to help people return to what they value in their lives, in an even more convenient way. We are proud to provide an easy solution for our patients' healthcare needs at their fingertips," says Dr. Mujtaba Ali-Khan, chief medical officer for HCA Houston Healthcare, in a news release.

Dallas-based CareNow was acquired by HCA in 2015 and has 16 locations in the greater Houston area.

Health care nonprofits are also taking advantage of remote ways to reach patients. Houston-based nonprofit CanCare is in the business of supporting cancer patients and their families and, despite a global pandemic, has not let up on its services to those in need. In fact, cancer patients with their weakened immune system are at greater risk of developing COVID-19 and are in need more than ever of CanCare's one-on-one matching emotional support service.

"The cancer community is in our thoughts and prayers during this time of uncertainty," says CanCare's President and CEO Cristina Vetrano in a news release. "Now more than ever, the community needs the help of our volunteers and support services. Our mission is not only to ensure the safety of clients, patients and caregivers but also to assure the community that they will continue to receive support throughout this challenging time."

Cancer patients can reach support via email at support@cancare.org or by calling the support line support line at 713-364-1652.

The Houston health care ecosystem will continue to see advances in telemedicine and remote care. One Houston startup, Medical Informatics, has created a virtual ICU program, called Sickbay, and the tech tool is being used to remotely monitor patients in Houston Methodist. The program works around the clock from a control hub to use artificial intelligence and algorithms to monitor patients.

"We designed our Sickbay platform to give lost data back to doctors, nurses and other members of the care team so they could save more lives," says Vincent Gagne, vice president of product for MIC, in a news release.

As the world emerges from COVID-19 — whenever and however that happens — telemedicine will have advanced as a viable option for physicians in a quicker way than it would have otherwise, Sol says.

"Telemedicine is here to stay now with the rapid adoption that just happened," he says. "The landscape will change tremendously."

The new tech hub at Houston Methodist has trained hundreds of physicians in telemedicine practices. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston Methodist tech hub focuses on telemedicine training amid COVID-19 outbreak

virtual care

Houston Methodist's recently opened its new Center for Innovation's Technology Hub in January, and the new wing has already been challenged by a global pandemic — one that's validating a real need for telemedicine.

The 3,500-square-foot tech testing ground was renovated from an 18-room patient wing and showcases new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, voice control, and more. The hub was focused on giving tours to medical professionals and executives to get them excited about health tech, but in the middle of March, Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist, says they saw a greater need for the space.

"We turned the technology hub into a training center where physicians could come on site and learn telemedicine," Sol says. "We had some foresight from our leadership who thought that telemedicine was going to be heavily utilized in order to protect our patients who might go into isolation based on the outbreak."

The hub has trained over 500 physicians — both onsite and digitally. Sol says that at the start of March, there were 66 providers offering virtual care, and by March 25, there were over 900 providers operating virtually. On March 12, Houston Methodist had 167 virtual visits, Sol says, and on March 25, they had 2,421. This new 2,000-plus number is now the daily average.

"Telemedicine is here to stay now with the rapid adoption that just happened," Sol says. "The landscape will change tremendously."

Another way new technology has affected doctors' day-to-day work has been through tele-rounding — especially when it comes to interacting with patients with COVID-19.

"We are putting iPads in those rooms with Vidyo as the video application, and our physicians can tele-visit into that room," Sol says.

It's all hands on deck for the tech hub so that physicians who need support have someone to turn to. Sol says the hub used to have a two-person support team and now there are eight people in that role.

Sol says the iPads are a key technology for tele-rounding and patient care — and they are working with Apple directly to secure inventory. But other tech tools, like an artificial intelligence-backed phone system, an online symptom checker, and chatbots are key to engaging with patients.

"We're looking at how we can get our patients in the right place at the right time," Sol says. "It's very confusing right now. We're hoping we can streamline that for our patients."

The hub was designed so that in case of emergency, the display hospital rooms could be transitioned to patient care rooms. Sol says that would be a call made by Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer of Houston Methodist Hospital.

The Center for Innovation at Houston Methodist has opened its new Technology Hub to showcase its efforts to advance digital health. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Photos: Houston Methodist opens new hub to showcase health tech of the future

what's next for health care?

Houston Methodist is regularly exploring new digital health technologies, but, until recently, lacked a proper space to demonstrate their vision for the future of health care. Now, with the Center for Innovation's Technology Hub, the hospital has just that.

The tech hub opened earlier this month in Houston Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center. The 3,500-square-foot tech testing ground was renovated from an 18-room patient wing and showcases new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, voice control, and more.

"Basically this space is like a laboratory for digital health innovations," says Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist. "It's an opportunity to bring doctors, administrators, and subject matter experts to talk through what digital health could be at Houston Methodist."

The tech hub has re-imagined the experiences patients have and demonstrated the effect technology can have in various experiences — from the waiting room or outpatient care to at-home health and a voice control-optimized patient room. There's a virtual reality demo room that showcases the hospital's use of VR for distraction therapy, as well as for a doctor to demonstrate a surgical procedure for his or her patient.

"Part of this space is to change culture within the organization to promote this type of technology and really grow it because we think we can have some really positive impacts with our patients with these collaboration tools.

The space also features coworking space for industry experts — like Amazon or Microsoft — to come in to co-create, Sol says. Houston Methodist was also the first hospital in Houston to sign up for Apple Health's beta program.

Tours are open to industry professionals, vendors, and staff.

"We're excited for what the future can bring with this space," Sol tells InnovationMap.

Click through the slideshow to see some of the tech hub's rooms and the technology featured.

An interactive space

Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The purpose of the new tech hub is to allow visitors to interact with technology Houston Methodist is exploring, as well as to tell the story of the hospital's innovations and its patients. The screen upon entry to the hub is one of the only 8K touch-screen monitors and allows a viewer to tap through to see a layout of the hub as well as to hear a story of one of Methodist's patients.

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SBA grant to open new centers to support women in business — and one will serve the Houston area

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The Houston area is benefitting from national funding that will be dedicated to creating female-focused resource centers across the country.

The United States Small Business Administration announced grant funding to launch 20 new Women's Business Centers (WBC) across the country. The centers, which are slated to go into rural and underserved markets, will also be partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

With the funds from the grant and through a partnership with the Greater Houston Women's Chamber of Commerce, the new center will rise in Northeast Houston to serve the Montgomery, East Harris and Chambers' Counties.

"We are incredibly excited that an organization as prominent as the Greater Houston Women's Chamber of Commerce is joining the SBA team," says Tim Jeffcoat, director if the SBA in Houston. "We are looking forward to working with them to empower women-owned businesses in Houston to reach new heights of success."

These new efforts represent the largest expansion of the WBC program in its 30-year existence.

"We are thrilled to partner with the SBA in opening another Women's Business Center, providing resources and tools for our region's women-led organizations to launch and expand," says Suzan Deison, CEO, president and founder of the Greater Houston Women's Chamber of Commerce. "We are honored the SBA chose to partner with us to expand needed services in Montgomery, East Harris & Chambers' counties, especially during these challenging times."

The SBA has 136 centers open across the country, and each offers business counseling, training, networking, workshops, and more to area female entrepreneurs.

"Opening the doors to the new Women's Business Centers is crucial to the vitality of women-owned small business owners. This network expansion will provide female entrepreneurs with the resources they need to start, grow, and expand their businesses," says Associate Administrator for the Office of Entrepreneurial Development Allen Gutierrez. "We look forward to the continued success of the WBC program as it contributes to the overall health of our economy and creates jobs in their local communities."

According to the release, the timing of these new centers is especially important as entrepreneurs continue to be challenged amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Over the past several months, we have seen Women's Business Centers provide aid to our nation's innovative and determined entrepreneurs, allowing countless small business owners to pivot with confidence to stay afloat during the pandemic," says SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza. "Expanding the WBC program is part of this Administration's longstanding commitment to the success of female entrepreneurs and women-owned small businesses. Adding these new Women's Business Centers to the already existing network of centers across America will boost timely resources to our nation's female economic drivers, providing them with local training and counseling."

Houston VC fund's new partner to grow focus on the future of work and underrepresented entrepreneurs

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 67

When Mercury Fund was founded in 2005, the goal was to focus on funding underrepresented entrepreneurs.

"The firm was really built around looking for the underrepresented entrepreneur and 15 years ago, that was just the middle of the country, because all the VC investments were on the coasts," says Heath Butler, network partner, on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And over the years, the firm has continued to look for the blue ocean in the VC market."

Nowadays, that means also finding and funding female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color. And Butler co-founded the Urban Capital Network — a group that aims to democratize VC funding by helping connect minority entrepreneurs and VC firms — to do just that.

Butler was recently promoted within Mercury and the the move represents another aspect the firm is focusing on: the future of work. Butler spent 14 years at Houston-based human resources service company, Insperity.

"The world continues to be shaped by how the workforce and the workplace — and the actual work gets — done, and that couldn't have been put to the forefront more than during COVID," Butler says. "The promotion really reflects my focus on building out a very broad and deep theme for the firm around the future of work."

Butler, who's on the board of several startups and hosts a monthly event with The Ion, is hands on with entrepreneurs and helps them make sure to keep their company culture front of mind as they grow.

"I grew up in an entrepreneurial family, led by my mother," he says. "I learned so much at such a young age around worth ethic and how the job of being an entrepreneur is."

Butler discusses more about his career and venture capital in Houston on the show. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Mayor greenlights major solar farm project in south Houston

shine on

Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city council have given the green light on a project that will convert a 240-acre former landfill in Sunnyside into a brownfield solar installation.

The public-private partnership with Sunnyside Energy LLC. received unanimous approval on a lease agreement that will move the project — which is a part of the City's Climate Action Plan and Complete Communities Initiative — forward.

"The Sunnyside landfill has been one of Houston's biggest community challenges for decades, and I am proud we are one step closer to its transformation," says Mayor Turner in a news release. "I thank the Sunnyside community because this project would not have come together without its support. This project is an example of how cities can work with the community to address long-standing environmental justice concerns holistically, create green jobs and generate renewable energy in the process."

The solar field, which is anticipated to be installed and working by the end of next year, will be able to power 5,000 homes and offset 120 million pounds of CO2 each year, according to the release.

"We applaud the actions of Mayor Turner and the City Council in taking this significant step," says Dori Wolfe, managing director of Sunnyside Energy LLC, in the release. "It is a strong vote of confidence for this impactful project. All members of the project team realize that this Sunnyside Solar facility will be an iconic statement in the rejuvenation of the community. We are grateful that Mayor Turner has given us his support."

The city's involvement with the company began in 2017 when Houston joined the C40 Reinventing Cities Competition – a global competition to promote sustainable energy projects. As a part of the competition and through the city's efforts on the initiative, powers at be selected the winning proposal from Wolfe Energy LLC, which formed Sunnyside Energy LLC to execute the urban solar farm project.

Per the lease agreement, the city of Houston owns the land and Sunnyside Energy will be the tenant responsible for permitting, construction, operation, and more.