Innovation, rising health care costs, mental health and preparing for the next disaster were hot topics at the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce’s event on “The State of Healthcare: Trends, Challenges, and the Future of Healthcare.”

Speaking on the panel were Joe Freudenberger, CEO of OakBend Medical Center; Dr. Richard Ehlers, executive medical director at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center; Malisha Patel, CEO at Memorial Hermann Sugar Land & Southwest Hospital; and Chris Siebenaler, CEO of Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital.

In addition to using more robotic surgical options to provide less invasive procedures, the panel members said they were formalizing their innovation capabilities to be more collaborative across their business units. They were also creating ways to bring patients more specialized care via artificial intelligence as well as help more people get care through virtual appointments.

Rising costs

While discussing rising health care costs, the panel members were asked about how their respective hospitals is managing rising deductibles and providing a lower-cost delivery model.

“It’s a challenging question because no one has the answer yet,” Patel said. “I’ve been here for 15 years, and it has been my goal to pursue a high-value, low-cost care, but the industry is constantly transitioning.”

They agreed they are working to be part of the solution by looking for ways to reduce costs, including better price transparency.

However, Ehlers said a lot of the costs comes in manpower.

“We can’t engineer all of the people out of health care or it isn’t care,” Ehlers said.

They also discussed taking better ownership of their relationships with insurance companies.

Disaster preparation

Now two years after Hurricane Harvey, the panelists said they have learned a lot about how to manage their hospitals. Ehlers said MD Anderson’s particular challenge in recent years is having people spread out across the Houston area and trying to coordinate with people who may be in a flooded area with others who are not.

Freudenberger said his hospital has formed relationships with emergency management systems in Fort Bend County as well as the whole area to participate in its emergency drills.

Meanwhile, Siebenaler said after Harvey, hospital emergency rooms became the front line for people with chronic diseases, particularly those needing oxygen and kidney dialysis.

“We were also discharging patients who might be returning to a flooded home or to a place where they couldn’t get their medication,” Siebenaler said. “We need to engage with providers to help them get up and going after a disaster.”

Mental health and addiction

Though mental health and addiction are being discussed at all levels of government, from school districts to states to federal, the panelists agreed it still lacking.

“Funding for mental health is not good,” Freudenberger said. “We routinely see people in crisis with mental health issues, and all we can do is stabilize them. We also have them stay in the hospital sometimes up to 72 hours, which is not where they need to be.”

Siebenaler and Patel agreed the resources are not available, and they sometimes have to go outside Houston to find a partner in mental health services.

At MD Anderson, Ehlers said he sees a lot of behavioral issues that can complicate care for cancer patients.

“We have challenges helping patients comply with the process, and over the years, had to build in mental health resources internally as well as partner with other organizations,” he said.