The sizeable state of Texas is known for its space—just don’t go looking for it in Harris County. The county’s borders encircle the rapidly expanding Houston metro area, making the region one of the densest in the state, and charged with the care of its swelling population of 4.3 million residents is Harris Health System, one of the United States’ largest public health-care institutions, which itself continues to grow by leaps and bounds. To handle the influx, the clinical network is nearing the end of a $350 million capital-improvement program that is reducing its patient wait times and improving its overall efficiency.
Mark C. Sams, Harris Health’s vice president of planning, facilities management, and engineering, has guided the capital expansion with a practical approach, focusing on providing the best possible care rather than developing new health facilities with embellished design features. He promotes a philosophy of “institutional elegance” in the project-management office he oversees. “This means buildings in urban settings that are aesthetically pleasing but cost-effective, where what’s inside is worth more than the building itself,” Sams says.
Sams reached his current position in 2013, after several years as senior project manager for the Smith Clinic and, later, as Harris Health’s manager of construction operations. The Smith Clinic is an outpatient facility, and it was one of the first projects in Harris Health’s capital-improvement program. “It was the first large project in the history of the organization that was finished early and under budget,” Sams says. Since taking the helm of the capital-improvement program, he has continued to apply a double-edged scrutiny to the execution of each new facility and renovation, from its conceptualization to its construction to its equipment procurement, always striving to strike a balance between care and affordability.
To date, Harris Health has built six new facilities and completed one major renovation to augment the 16 community health centers, five school-based clinics, two full-service hospitals (with a total of 914 licensed beds), one rehabilitation and specialty hospital, one dental center and dialysis center, and several mobile health units that formerly made up its system. It also has four new projects currently under development and an additional seven clinics slated for construction in the coming year. The underlying goal of the expansion is to allow the primary-care facilities to function unencumbered by the many specialty services that have long shared space with them, the larger point being to improve the client experience and quality of care.
“We’ve expanded the reach of our primary-care services in the community and are now moving our specialty outpatient clinics out of the two main hospitals,” Sams says. “Once a patient is cared for in the primary-care setting, if they have a need for specialty treatment or testing, they are referred to one of our new outpatient specialty clinics.”
Harris Health provides quality health care to all residents in its jurisdiction. “We care for some of the most vulnerable individuals in Harris County,” Sams says. “Approximately two-thirds of our patient population is either uninsured or underinsured.” In fiscal year 2014, Harris Health cared for 312,000 individuals, and that number will climb with the continuation and completion of the clinical network’s construction plans.
Because of its efforts, Harris Health became the first accredited health-care institution in Harris County to be designated by the National Committee for Quality Assurance as a patient-centered medical home, and it’s one of the largest systems in the country to achieve such a quality standard. Such recognition and respect are likely to continue as the clinical network’s expansion continues. “Our facilities,” Sams says, “are as good as any of the private hospitals in town.”