Pioneers of Public Health
Long before public health care was subsidized by the government, Houstonians set out to offer health services to the underserved in the community through a city- and county-run hospital in 1924. By 1938, the second major city-county hospital named Jefferson Davis Hospital was built on Allen Parkway.
In 1948, a young Michael E. DeBakey, M.D., had just been named chairman of the department of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine. At that time, there was only one hospital in what would eventually become the Texas Medical Center.
“Back then, Baylor was way out in the country,” said Kenneth Mattox, M.D., chief of staff and surgeon-in-chief at Ben Taub Hospital and distinguished service professor of the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine. “They were hunting deer in the woods around the medical school.”
In an effort to provide medical experience to his students, DeBakey scheduled a meeting with Ben Taub, chairman of the Jefferson Davis board, to ask if his students and residents could make rotations on the patients at the hospital. The meeting—originally scheduled to last 15 minutes—turned into five hours and formed a partnership that would create the largest public health care system in the third most populous county in the United States.
“In the early days of Jefferson Davis, predating Harris Health System, there was no budget for public health care,” Mattox said. “If a patient needed a heart valve or a hip prosthesis, Dr. DeBakey would call Mr. Taub and between the two of them, they would pay for it.”
After a matter of time, it was evident that the hospital did need funding and a switch to single ownership, as opposed to being owned by the city and county. In 1966, the Harris County Hospital District was formed, and it included Jefferson Davis Hospital in addition to another three-year-old hospital named after Ben Taub.
The formation of the Harris County Hospital District marked the beginning of the Harris Health System we know today. Shortly after its inception, the Harris Health System began opening outpatient clinics throughout Harris County to extend their services to those unable to travel to the city center. The clinics were formed at the request of Carlos Vallbona, M.D.
“Vallbona was an absolute visionary,” said Brian Reed, M.D., vice chief of staff of Harris Health’s Community Health Program and associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine. “His vision for developing community health centers and teaching future doctors in those facilities was revolutionary for the time and paved the way for what Harris Health is today.”
Over the last 50 years, the Harris Health System has grown to meet the needs of Harris County. In 1989, the second Ben Taub Hospital was built adjacent to the first to meet new building codes. That same year, the Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital was built with 328 beds in the northeast corner of Harris County, outside of Loop 610. The hospital replaced an outdated Jefferson Davis Hospital and was also the first Harris Health facility to be staffed outside of Baylor College of Medicine.
The former dean of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), Frank Webber, M.D., saw an opportunity for UTHealth students to gain public health experience at the Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital. Their involvement with the Harris Health System also expanded to staffing some of the outpatient clinics in Harris County.
“We serve a very important group of people out here who would otherwise have to drive miles and miles to get the care they need,” said Carmel Dyer, M.D., chief of staff at Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital and professor and director of the division of geriatric and palliative medicine and associate dean of the Harris County Programs for UTHealth. “We serve everyone from the surrounding areas of Harris County and we serve a very important part of the community.”
Collaboration has been at the core of what makes the Harris Health System work as well as it does. All 47 locations are staffed by faculty physicians and residents from the two medical schools in the Texas Medical Center.
“The local model that we have developed here in partnership with the academic community and the management of Harris Health is a balance which makes Harris Health one of the best examples of public health care delivery that exists in the world,” Mattox said.
Today, Harris Health serves a total of 325,000 individuals through nearly 2 million patient visits annually through its multiple locations, including its community health centers across the county. In fact, the community health centers have become the focal sites for Harris Health System’s ability to reach the largest number of patients.
“We have worked hard to establish a medical home for our patients in the clinics,” Reed said. “We are able to function as a one-stop shop at our outpatient clinics—we have X-rays, physical therapy, dental services, behavioral therapy and a pharmacy all in one place to make it more accessible for our patients.”
The group has also expanded to three hospitals throughout the county: Ben Taub, one of only two Level 1 trauma centers in the city; Lyndon B. Johnson, the busiest Level 3 trauma center in the state of Texas; and Quentin Mease, a geriatric and rehabilitation facility. They also have five school-based clinics, 10 homeless shelter clinics, a free-standing dental center and a dedicated HIV/AIDS clinic, the first such free-standing facility in the nation.
Without the Harris Health System, one third of Harris County’s population would not receive affordable top-notch health care. Because of this, it serves as a safety-net provider in Harris County.
The vision of the Harris Health founders 50 years ago made it the system it is today. Though many practices and technologies have changed, their core mission has remained the same: to improve our community’s health by delivering high-quality health care to Harris County residents and training the next generation of health professionals.
“Our founders had a vision that the hospitals would be here for the underserved,” said George V. Masi, president and CEO of Harris Health System.
“As long as there are medically underserved people in our community, we will be there and continue to grow and continue to meet the needs of the community.”