The West Valley, much like the rest of Metro Phoenix is in the middle of a growth spurt. And, just like a sudden burst of height during high school causes soreness, the rapid pace of development on the west side comes with some aches and pains. As the region expands, more residents have found themselves living significant distances from the clusters of healthcare infrastructure. For example, a Buckeye resident must drive their child some 40 miles to receive top-notch medical care at Phoenix Children’s Hospital’s main facility on Thomas Road.

Luckily, finding a healthcare professional to treat medical issues — from mundane to acute — is becoming easier in the municipalities that populate the western reaches of the nation’s 10th largest metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Last year, Phoenix Children’s Hospital announced three new facilities in the West Valley representing a nearly $200 million West Valley healthcare investment that will generate 650 new permanent jobs — the Arrowhead Campus in Glendale, the Southwest Campus in Avondale and Phoenix Children’s Sports Medicine Clinic in Avondale.

READ ALSO: 5 of 10 fastest-growing Arizona cities are in the West Valley

LEARN MORE: Learn more about WESTMARC

Banner Health is also expanding its presence in the region. During the 2022 WESTMARC Healthcare Summit, Amy Perry, president and chief operating officer of Banner Health, talked about the organization building a new hospital in Buckeye.

“We expect to open in the fall of 2024 with approximately 120 beds, imaging, surgery, labor and delivery, intensive care [and an] emergency room,” she says. “We are going to spend about $400 million over the next five years, and over $1 billion when fully built out in 10 years. It’s going to create more than 600 jobs over the next five years and more than 2,000 when fully built out.”

This infusion of new facilities will increase the quality of life for residents, along with supporting a core sector in the region. “Healthcare is a leading industry in the West Valley, with 36% of all healthcare workers in Maricopa County living here,” says Sintra Hoffman, president and CEO of WESTMARC. “Healthcare follows numbers, and our population today is 1.7 million residents. There’s such a demand for healthcare — we’re all getting older and taking care of aging parents.”

While also expanding their footprint, healthcare organizations are contending with changing trends in the field, some present prior to the pandemic, and others a direct result of it.

Rendering of Phoenix Children’s Southwest Campus.

Healthy market

A building boom is underway in Metro Phoenix. Malls from a bygone era, such as Metrocenter and Paradise Valley Mall, are being reconstituted into mixed-use urban villages. West of the White Tanks, the master-planned community Douglas Ranch will house 300,000 residents in 100,000 homes once completed. In Queen Creek, LG is spending approximately $1.4 billion on the first cylindrical-type battery manufacturing plant in North America.

Jake Dinnen, senior vice president of development for Pacific Medical Buildings, says at the 2022 WESTMARC Healthcare Summit that across the board, the Phoenix market is on fire. “The growth is just unbelievable. Trying to keep up through providing supplies and healthcare services is a challenge for all healthcare providers,” he notes. “There’s so much demand for medical [space]. Projects we did four years ago cost $100 per square foot to build. Today it’s $180 or $190, and we all know healthcare providers aren’t making more money now than they were four years ago.”

Beyond rising costs, an added complication in ensuring the whole Valley has adequate healthcare facilities stems from the way Metro Phoenix has spread out development, according to Hans Driessnack, CEO of Abrazo West Campus. Other large cities, he says, traditionally operate with a hub-and-spoke model where there are a few large hospitals in the downtown area, with smaller hospitals that surround the outlying suburb areas that send high acuity patients to the centrally located facilities.

“Phoenix has developed pockets of healthcare,” Driessnack says. “Spreading out that way has created advantages and disadvantages overall for healthcare delivery, but for the West Valley, it’s a chance to continue to see advanced levels of care being delivered there. If we were constantly sending everyone downtown for anything high acuity, that would be a detriment as we [develop] farther west. It ends up benefiting us as a city to have more access to higher-level care in a closer proximity to the communities where people live.”

A trend Driessnack has observed in the healthcare system — and accelerated by the pandemic — is a push for more outpatient facilities. He notes that hospitals used to be the center hub to get all types of care, whether it be elective, outpatient or inpatient.

“If you wanted an X-ray or a CT, the hospital is where you went. But in just the last five years, the number of freestanding imaging centers have come up; [physical therapy], [occupation therapy] and speech [therapy] have moved into the outpatient environment; ambulatory surgery centers are popping up all over the place.

“Although the payers love this because it’s a cheaper area of care,” Driessnack continues, “it’s been disjointed. The next stage of this trend is going to be unifying those outpatient areas into healthcare systems — not absorbed, but partnered with. That way there’s continuity of handoff in between those environments.”

Another trend Kara McNamara, vice president of sales at Corporate Interior Systems, has encountered is an evolution of how healthcare facilities are designed. She worked on the HonorHealth Sonoran Crossing Medical Center and notes it was ahead of the curve.

“What we ended up doing there now has been accelerated and replicated since the pandemic,” McNamara explains at the 2022 WESTMARC Healthcare Summit. “Instead of lining up rows and rows of seats next to each other, we’re planning neighborhoods and paths for families to be in the waiting room together. There are individual spaces, so people that are not part of a family can separate.”

The goal, according to McNamara, is to create as much flexibility as possible under one roof, which using prefabricated construction materials helps to achieve. She also stresses the importance of creating a soothing environment.

“The pandemic created so much anxiety for people,” McNamara says. “Bringing biophilia into the building, even creating exterior spaces for people to wait indoors and outdoors, and simply putting beautiful art in the space and having beautiful landscapes provides calm and helps people have shorter stays, use less medication, have less anxiety and less pain.”

West Valley digital healthcare

With well over two years having passed since the beginning of the COVID-19 public health crisis, highlighting the impact it had on the adoption of technology seems somewhat passé. Still, the opportunities provided by expanding digital care options for patients shouldn’t be understated.

“[The pandemic] forever changed how we’re going to do our business,” Perry says. “One of the most significant advancements in our industry is the work in the digital sector.”

She adds that the industry had been slowly expanding telehealth options, which was supercharged by the coronavirus since it was the best way to connect with patients as hospital beds filled up. Folks like Perry’s 80-year-old mother — who didn’t have a smartphone — had to figure out how to navigate an online care environment using technology she was unfamiliar with. Despite the challenges, digital natives and newcomers alike flocked to telehealth services, which Perry notes experienced tremendous growth, with Banner recording an 8,000% increase in online visits.

“The biggest thing we all found is we can provide health care effectively, differently. And we really have to look at what is next. How are we going to innovate? How are we going to connect with people in a different, more convenient way?” Perry posits. “85% of our consumers are saying they don’t want to come into a medical office and take time out of their day unless they have to.”

Restructuring how healthcare is delivered will help reduce the time spent in a facility, such as having laboratory services show up at a patient’s door. Moreover, using telehealth services can lessen the workload for healthcare professionals administering bedside care — a welcome addition for a sector wrought with burnout.

“Not only do [digital solutions] impact how we care for our consumers and how we connect with our workforce, but there’s so many ways that digital is going to change healthcare, hopefully a lot in automation,” Perry says. “We have to look at everything we do. Could this be automated? Do we need a person to do this? Or is there a way to change the process?”

Banner currently uses automation to identify patients who are at high risk using the organization’s electronic health record. “We have a deterioration index that’s built into our health record that will alert our care team,” Perry explains. “If there’s something between the nurse’s notes, the physician’s notes, the lab work and the vitals that are spelling out potential deterioration — get in front of it. Those machine learning algorithms are the future.”

Another potential vector for innovation Perry mentions is the smartphone. As facial recognition software gets better, she says it can determine a person’s pulse oximetry and other biometrics.

“That’s the kind of technology that will keep people well and will ultimately make healthcare more affordable,” she concludes. “That’s what we all need to fight for.”