Best in class

Here's how Houston hospitals stack up when it comes to safety, according to a national study

Houston hospitals got their report cards. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Close to half of the Houston area's general acute-care hospitals are at the top of their class, according to new safety grades assigned to U.S. hospitals. But one hospital in the region is failing on the safety front, the grades show.

In its fall 2019 report card for acute-care hospitals, The Leapfrog Group gives letter grades of A, B, C, D, and F based on the hospitals' ability to shield patients from avoidable errors, injuries, accidents, and infections. The nonprofit represents hundreds of public and private employers that buy healthcare benefits.

In the Houston area, 19 hospitals earned an A, with 14 receiving a B, seven getting a C, one picking up a D and one being slapped with an F.

Chris Skisak, executive director of the Houston Business Coalition on Health, notes that 23 percent of hospitals in the Houston areas saw their Leapfrog grades go up while just 11 percent saw their grades go down. The coalition is a regional leader for The Leapfrog Group.

"Houston-area hospitals do care about their grades," Skisak says, "and going back to 2016, most obtained a higher grade after receiving a lower grade the previous assessment period. Houston is fortunate to have [about] 50 percent of its hospitals earn consistent A grades."

For the first time in at least four years, The Leapfrog Group did hit one Houston-area hospital — Huntsville Memorial Hospital — with an F. On the spring 2019 report card, the hospital received a D. In the fall of 2018, the mark was a C.

Huntsville Memorial Hospital currently is combating what's been described as a "dire financial situation."

In a November 1 statement, the Walker County Hospital District, which owns the Huntsville hospital, said the separate nonprofit entity that runs the hospital — Walker County Hospital Corp. — was beset by monetary woes and was on the verge of declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy. As a result, the district warned, the hospital might close.

According to The Huntsville Item, a proposed rescue of the hospital would place ownership and management in the hands of a joint venture between the hospital district and Plano-based Community Hospital Corp., a hospital management company. The nonprofit Plano company provides supply-chain services to a Huntsville medical practice, Huntsville Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine PLLC.

In the statement, the district's board says it "remains committed to maintaining a viable hospital for the community and to improving hospital operations and services."

The Leapfrog Group graded a total of 42 hospitals in the Houston area. The nonprofit released its fall 2019 report card on November 7.

Houston-area hospitals that earned an A were:

  • Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Conroe
  • HCA Houston Healthcare West
  • Houston Methodist Hospital
  • Houston Methodist West Hospital
  • Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital
  • Memorial Hermann Southeast
  • Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital
  • Memorial Hermann Northeast, Humble
  • Memorial Hermann Katy Hospital
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Kingwood
  • CHI St. Luke's Health Memorial Livingston
  • Houston Methodist Clear Lake Hospital in Nassau Bay
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Pearland
  • Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital
  • CHI St. Luke's Health The Woodlands Hospital
  • Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital
  • Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Hospital
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake in Webster

Skisak says the Leapfrog report card "is a valuable resource for employers to share with their employees so that they can self-navigate to the safest and highest quality hospitals."

"The Leapfrog Hospital Safety Grade offers critical patient safety information to consumers, in an easily digestible way, so that they can make informed decisions about where they seek care in the Houston area," he says in a release.

The Leapfrog Group bases its twice-a-year grades for hospital safety on 28 sets of publicly available data from more than 2,600 U.S. hospitals.

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

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.