Derek Watson’s guiding thought at University Health Care System (UHCS) is that every person matters.
As director of planning, design, and construction, Watson leads a department responsible for small equipment upgrades, construction of modern patient care units, and everything in between. Watson and his team know that every choice that is made will impact patient care—and he says the chance to help improve patient outcomes through design and construction keeps them motivated to deliver the very best built environment possible.
UHCS, Georgia’s second oldest hospital system, is a not-for-profit institution and one of the state’s most respected and comprehensive healthcare providers. The system includes 3 hospitals and 45 outpatient clinics and related facilities that together serve 25 counties surrounding Augusta–Richmond. University Hospital’s main campus at Augusta is anchored by a 10-floor building that is home to an Emergency Department, a Heart Attack & Stroke Prevention Center, a Heart & Vascular Institute, and 812 inpatient beds.
Watson—who has spent the last 15 years of his 25-year career in healthcare—came to UHCS from Children’s Health, where he built a reputation for developing leaders and pursuing innovative results. At the renowned pediatric hospital in Texas, Watson had RFID trackers embedded in hospital staff badges to track workflow and traffic before renovating perioperative spaces. The move helped his team streamline designs ensuring clinicians can provide better care and the system can capture greater revenue.
Construction projects in healthcare require special measures. In addition to normal factors and risks, someone leading large projects in the industry must consider infection control, patient privacy, hazardous materials, and access for food service and housekeeping. In addition, many interior spaces house complex equipment and have highly specialized uses.
“We can always learn today to do something better tomorrow.”
Watson says he sees great value in involving contractors, end-users, vendors, architects, and all other stakeholders in all projects as early as possible. Doing so helps reduce redesigns, delays, and cost overruns. Each project, Watson says, is an opportunity for him and the team to improve the process. “I’ve learned to continue to look for a better way to achieve the objective without sacrificing the product,” he explains. “We can always learn today to do something better tomorrow.”
The mission of University Health Care System is simple: “to improve the health of those we serve.” Watson and his team see each and every project as a chance to deliver on that mission. The director knows a well-built space will keep patients and visitors safe and comfortable and help care providers perform with excellence.
Watson likes predictable, repeatable processes, but he’s also willing to challenge those processes. “Healthcare can be innovative, but it can also be slow to change. I can’t accept it when someone tells me I must do something only because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” he says, adding that he often asks, “Why?”
The approach frequently uncovers inefficiencies that can lead to cost saving opportunities. In 2019, Watson realized UHCS rented multiple negative air machines for up to $100 per day, but when he questioned the process, it inspired an opportunity for change. He quickly received approval to purchase 25 machines. The move would save the health system $50,000 per year.
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 put Watson’s team to the test. As health systems across the nation braced for an influx of coronavirus patients, UHCS leaders asked Watson to complete a 100-day intensive care unit renovation project in just 24 days, while keeping the doors open so practitioners could tend to the new patients. Watson turned a small University Hospital Summerville break room into his command headquarters, pulled in four other health system leaders, and with his team leveraged their relationships to fast-track material delivery and complete the important multimillion-dollar project on time.
Under normal circumstances, Watson’s team would have engaged the standard 120-day design process, during which the director meets with representatives from dietary, supply chain, IT, nursing, transportation, environmental services, engineering, pharmacy, and other disciplines. Instead, the team turned the renovation into a design-build project, solicited the simultaneous input of necessary stakeholders, and relied on a foundation of trust and communication. The system leaders collaborated to replace the ceiling, update lighting and flooring, patch and paint walls, build a new nursing station, install IT cabling and telemetry for patient monitoring, and get eight rooms operational and in compliance with guidelines from state agencies.
The project, which was successful in part because Watson shared information with his counterparts and subordinates, demonstrates his transparent leadership style and the team’s aptitude for excelling at any challenge with which it’s presented. “Access to information empowers those around me to do a better job, especially when they understand how that job fits into the overall picture of what we can accomplish together,” he says, adding that his team always refers to the department’s master plan and the hospital system’s vision.
The patient experience starts long before that patient is sitting in a doctor’s office or lying on the operating table. From the moment a patient places an initial phone call, they set in motion a chain of events that will take them from the road, to the valet, through the front doors, to a volunteer, to a nurse, and beyond. Each patient will encounter dozens of UHCS staff members, and each staff member will contribute to that patient’s care.
Watson and his team may never meet the patient, but long before the patient arrives, they have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help ensure University Health Care System delivers on its mission to improve the health of the people and communities of greater Augusta.