New UTHealth psychiatric hospital combines innovative care with strategic design

Published: January 11, 2019 by Deborah Mann Lake

Plans revealing a psychiatric facility centered around light and nature were unveiled today for the UTHealth Continuum of Care Campus for Behavioral Health, a joint project of the Texas State Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

The campus was created with $125 million in state funds approved by the 2017 Legislative Budget Board and Gov. Greg Abbott to HHSC as part of a large initiative to improve behavioral health across the state. Construction is scheduled to begin this summer.

“We are honored to be partners in this substantial investment by the state of Texas in the mental health of our community,” said UTHealth President Giuseppe N. Colasurdo, MD. “The new facility, staffed by our community of experts in brain and behavioral health, will be transformational for patients and will serve as the continuum of care model for the rest of country.”

Once complete, the campus, which includes the new hospital and UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center (HCPC), will become the largest academic psychiatric  hospital in the country.

“With a strong focus on serving our community to alleviate suffering from major mental illnesses, as well as leveraging cutting-edge research and education around mental health, this integrated campus allows us to expand our efforts to conquer these conditions,” said Jair Soares, MD, PhD, the Pat R. Rutherford, Jr. Chair In Psychiatry and executive director of the UTHealth Continuum of Care Campus.

The design incorporates two buildings, linked by a glazed bridge, that house the clinical units, support services, research, and education spaces. The hospital, like the adjacent UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center, will be managed and staffed by the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. It will be the first public mental health hospital built in Houston in more than three decades.

Architectural firm Perkins+Will designed the spaces by considering lighting, acoustics, and visual aspects of the patient environment to reduce agitation and encourage healing. According to research published in Health Environments Research and Design Journal, natural daylight and evening darkness drive circadian rhythm responses that influence emotional and mental state. Research has also shown that excessive noise is associated with stress for patients and staff.

“As we developed this project, we paid a great deal of attention to the impact of the physical environment on patients,” said Stephen Glazier, COO of UTHealth HCPC, who will also oversee the new hospital. “Design that incorporates uncrowded spaces, natural light, and access to the outdoors can contribute to better outcomes. The right design can also help patients gain a sense of control, which can be a critical factor contributing to their recovery.”

The door to the hospital will be under a deep overhang, designed as a transition into a calmer, quieter space. The buildings will have views to internal and external courtyards. Plans include a therapy mall, activity room, and communal dining facility that look into the internal courtyard through floor-to-ceiling glass. The external courtyard will connect to a large, tree-filled outdoor space. The research/education area was designed to have its own entrance.

Perkins+Will incorporated the science of social dynamics so that the spaces will be naturally supportive of the appropriate and helpful interactions of patients with staff and with other patients. Units will be arranged around a central living space, designed to accommodate residents in an environment where they can be both comfortable and engaged. Since needs for different types of units will vary over time, they are designed to be as flexible as possible. In addition to more acute beds, the new hospital will have subacute care units for patients who need a longer stay to heal.

The campus comes at a critical time as legislators have worked to address gaps in the behavioral health system in Texas. With an additional 240 beds arranged in 10 units, the new hospital is focused on reducing rapid readmissions and improving outcomes for super utilizers – those with four or more stays per year.

The new campus will hopefully be the first step of a future integrated statewide system that is being recommended by planning groups involving state leadership, academic chairs of psychiatry, and representatives of local communities.

“This transformation of the state’s inpatient mental health care system is unprecedented,” said Mike Maples, deputy executive commissioner for HHSC’s Health and Specialty Care System. “The Legislature’s investment will modernize and expand the hospital system, and, more importantly, it serves as a catalyst for improving the whole system of care.” 

Many people at the Capitol and across the state were instrumental in securing these funds, including the author and sponsor of SB 1, Sen. Jane Nelson and Rep. John Zerwas, MD, and state leaders such as Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Joe Straus. Sen. Charles Schwertner, MD, and Rep. Sarah Davis, who oversee budget negotiations for health and human service programs, led the effort in their respective chambers to make sure this critical funding was included in an otherwise extremely tight budget year. Most of the Texas Medical Center is in Rep. Davis’ district. Other members of the Harris County delegation were vocal in their support of the project and ultimately ensured Houstonians will have the access to care that they deserve.

The UTHealth Continuum of Care Campus was a recommended project by two interim committees before the session. After a long study, tours, and briefings, the Houston project was recommended for funding by the Senate Interim Committee on Health and Human Services, led by Sen. Schwertner and vice chaired by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst; and the House Select Committee on Mental Health, which was led by Rep. Four Price and included local mental health champions Reps. Garnet Coleman, Sarah Davis, and Senfronia Thompson.

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