San Antonio’s medical district, now the South Texas Medical Center, has had a transformative impact on the growth, economic development, and well-being of residents, both locally and regionally.

What was once a dairy farm with twin silos on the northwest outskirts of San Antonio has grown into a 900-acre, $24.5 billion epicenter for change, home to 75 medically related institutions, more than 45 clinics, 12 major hospitals, a medical school, a dental school, and countless physicians practices.

The health care and bioscience industry’s local impact is estimated to be about $37 billion.

As the South Texas Medical Center celebrates its 50th anniversary, local medical, bioscience, and nonprofit leaders will discuss the medical center’s history and look ahead to the next 50 years at a luncheon on Monday, Sept. 24.

Methodist Healthcare Ministries asked us to organize an event convening the community around the 50th anniversary of the South Texas Medical Center in this Tricentennial year,” said Rivard Report Editor and Publisher Robert Rivard, who will moderate the conversation. “And we certainly agreed its founding in 1968 deserves the same attention and appreciation that we have given Hemisfair in its 50th anniversary year.”

Participating in the luncheon discussion will be UT Health San Antonio President Dr. William Henrich, San Antonio Medical Foundation President Jim Reed, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District Director Colleen Bridger, University Health System President and CEO George Hernandez, and San Antonio Economic Development Foundation President and CEO Jenna Saucedo-Herrera.

Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, president and CEO of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation
Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, president and CEO of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation Credit: Courtesty / San Antonio Economic Development Foundation

“I am glad we are having this conversation at the level we are having it at regarding the health and bioscience industry in San Antonio,” said Saucedo-Herrera. “We have had a critical mass of assets that truly differentiates our city, but we never really talk about them. We talk about burgeoning tech, but bioscience is our second-largest industry.”

The San Antonio Medical Foundation began lobbying the Texas Legislature for San Antonio’s first medical school, now UT Health San Antonio, in 1947; the foundation’s goal was to bring a medical school to San Antonio and increase the total number of hospital beds available locally. At that time, San Antonio had the fewest beds per-capita of any major city in the country, and medical education and biomedical research institutions were already up and running in Galveston and Dallas counties.

Once the medical school opened in 1968, it quickly attracted dental and nursing schools, which contributed to rapid growth in the medical sector from the mid-1960s to the early ’70s, and has continued to today, said Reed.

“We are ahead of the curve with the facilities we have,” he said. “A lot of places have a university, a health science center, but they don’t have a Texas BioMed, [a research institute], a BioBridge Global, or the largest military health care facility in the world.

“What we have is very powerful – no other city in the U.S. has that.”

Dr. William Henrich is president of UT Health San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy / UT Health San Antonio

Henrich told the Rivard Report that in order to elevate San Antonio’s “prominence as a city of science and a very robust knowledge economy,” developing strong partnerships is key.

One of the most significant links between the San Antonio health and biomedical science industries is the enhanced collaboration among UT Health San Antonio, the University of Texas at San Antonio, the Southwest Research Institute, and the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, Henrich said, noting the organizations recently formed a new collective aimed at elevating San Antonio’s reputation in the science community.

“We are on the leading edge of so many new and exciting possibilities, and we have extensive relationships with universities and consortia around the world,” Henrich said. “We need to work together, collaborate more, and extend our work beyond San Antonio.”

When it comes to medicine and science, San Antonio “has a leg up” economically due to its vast funding resources and being the home of military medicine, Saucedo-Herrera said. But in order to recruit companies that will “complement the ecosystem,” setting priorities is important.

“We have so many different significant areas of expertise,” Saucedo-Herrera said. “The complexity of the industry means that we need to find our niche.”

Looking to the future, Hernandez said the biggest challenge San Antonio faces is in making sure the city produces an educated workforce to keep up with growth in the healthcare and bioscience industries amid a nationwide shortage of medical professionals.

University Health System President and CEO George Hernandez Credit: Courtesy / UT Health

“The medical students we have are not coming from San Antonio. The residents we have are not coming from San Antonio,” he said. “… We aren’t growing enough of our own professionals in each category – that’s the biggest problem. And we have to address these things now in order to continue to grow as an academic medical center and be a player in the years to come.”

For San Antonio to grow its own health care workers and professionals, public health and well-being play a role alongside education, business leaders say.

“We need to make sure that we are looking at the earliest place where we can intervene in a child’s life and look at the whole picture of health, not just the clinical aspects,” she said.

For her part in the panel, Bridger said she will bring a public health perspective that highlights the complicated generational issues San Antonio is facing in terms of health and wellness.

The conversation, titled “The South Texas Medical Center: A Look Back at the First 50 Years … A Look Ahead at the Next 50 Years,” will take place at the Omni Colonnade Hotel from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

“Our program will cover all that has been accomplished to date and explore what is on the horizon,” Rivard said. “The medical center is the heart and soul of this city’s smart-jobs economy, and it continues to grow robustly. We have a dynamic group of leaders all together on one stage for one important moment.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.