Blog: Everything’s bigger in Texas! A visit to the Texas Medical Center

Our General Manager Stakeholder Engagement, Dr Alfredo Martinez-Coll, headed to the Texas Medical Centre in June to learn more about the world's largest medical centre/precinct's model and connect with institutions and researchers on their innovative developments. Catch up on his blog below to understand how they make it work.

Most of us would be familiar with the Apollo 13 quote, “Houston, we have a problem”. Of course, this was at the height of NASA’s space exploration and missions to the moon, and Houston became synonymous with all things space and mission control activities for NASA.

Well, for those seeking the best, latest medical treatments, Houston is certainly the place to go. Some of you would have heard about Texas Medical Center (TMC) as I had, however, TMC was not exactly what I was expecting. Yes, is a medical city…however, TMC is the brand for the entity that owns the land where countless universities, hospitals, and institutes reside: all focused on leading-edge medical treatments and scientific research.

Just one of the many institutions onsite is MD Anderson Cancer Center - the premier cancer treatment center in the USA (if not the world) that sees 16% of all cancer patients in the US every year. MDAnderson has 22,000 employees, all of whom specialise in cancer!

As a biomedical engineer, I was particularly taken with the Texas Heart Institute (THI). Impressive quotes and facts line the building, such as “Physicians at THI have performed more heart transplants and open heart surgeries at Baylor St Luke’s Medical Center than any other facility in the US”. THI is a site that must be part of all human trials for all cardiac devices in development for the US market! I was lucky enough to visit the research labs where they are working on the early stage technologies that will hopefully lead to new life-saving cardiac devices. For example, THI is developing a blood assay to measure and predict the rate of hemolysis (or rupturing of red blood cells which is a common problem when blood is “pushed” through cardiac assist devices) depending on simulations around the geometry and flow characteristics of a particular device. This means that engineers can optimise their designs to minimise hemolysis without having to do in-vivo tests.

I had visited THI many years ago when I was still doing my post-doc. Then, I had the incredible opportunity to walk through the huge ICU suite with dozens of beds dedicated only to heart patients. They told me then that the operate 24/7- a roster of surgeons keeps things moving all the time, with the latest machines that go “bing”, and domed observation suites for the operating theatre. Incredible stuff.

Of course, all of this wonderful technology, expertise, and the world-class facilities come at a massive cost. The way TMC and its affiliated institutions address this is through donations teams. Just after my meeting with them, MD Anderson were expecting a donor to tour the facility as a thank you for their $100+ million donation to an individual department – multi-million dollar donations are commonplace.

I also visited the TMC Innovation Institute – a medtech incubator/accelerator with impressive facilities and large open co-working spaces for medtech/digital health companies at different stages in their journeys (start-ups and SMEs). It also has a partnership with AT&T Innovation group looking at digital health requirements for the future (by being there AT&T can work closely with all TMC hospitals and institutions in looking at needs and opportunities). TMC Innovation Institute takes on companies from all over the world for their programs. It then assesses their immediate requirements and provides the necessary support/facilitation role (match maker, introduction agency, etc). Like most of these types of incubators, they also run Biodesign courses. SMEs can rent office space at competitive rates and benefit from the TMC networks and the interactions with the start-ups. For the 2017 Spring Digital Health Accelerator program three Australian companies where selected: CNSDose, a genomic solution to fast track finding the most suitable antidepressant; Personify Care, mobile platform enabling clinical teams to monitor patient recovery beyond the hospital stay; and Ward Medication Management, decision support analytics engine that provides evidence-based prescribing recommendations.

The other aspect of this amazing place is the personal stories of people and families often going through very difficult circumstances. The hotel where I was staying near the TMC has a free shuttle bus that delivers and picks up patients to/from most of the major clinical facilities. Many patients take “residence” in the local hotels during their treatments. The hotel staff are warm, caring, and provide that personal touch to their guests – many are return visitors and the staff know them by name and often provide some light exchanges to distract guests from their medical problems (even if only for the 10-minute ride to the hospital). The shuttle drivers from my hotel had been there for more than 30 years and clearly love their jobs and enjoy the interaction with their guests.

It all adds up to a well-oiled, impressive machine at a very large scale, and provides Australian innovators with a wonderful opportunity to explore developing and implementing solutions for the US healthcare market in a significant representative microcosm (if it works at the TMC campus, it will probably work nationally).

This fruitful visit has provided some great insights into how we can start applying some of these learnings to build better, more integrated, and viable health precincts and expand and complement our world-class medical and research facilities in Australia.