Featured photo courtesy of Northwell Health.
While most industries have shrunk in the shadow of the pandemic, local hospitals are expanding and evolving more ambitiously than ever.
Visiting Westchester Medical Center — just off the Sprain Brook Parkway in Valhalla — can feel like you’re entering a small city.
The towering, red-brick University Hospital Building seems to sprawl out endlessly, with next-door neighbor Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital adding another 260,000 square feet to the footprint. Several other medical buildings dot the campus, including an ambulatory-care pavilion that is equal in size to the Children’s Hospital and an occupational health center. If you look overhead, a helicopter or two may buzz by, rushing in critical patients from around the region.
And this small city has plans to grow even more. “We’re going to be building a modern, five-story, 162,000-square-foot new building,” explains Joshua Ratner, executive vice president and chief strategy officer for the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth), on a recent Friday morning. The Valhalla campus is WMCHealth’s flagship, with nearly 500 beds and a 100-year history, although the network has nine other hospitals spread across the Hudson Valley.
“If we have a situation where there might be a local disaster, we’re going to have top patient throughput and efficiency.”
—Josh Ratner WMCHealth
The $220 million project is still in its early stages. Construction will commence this summer, with an anticipated ribbon-cutting in winter of 2025 — but its impact will be profound. “It’s going to be a critical-care medical tower,” Ratner says, significantly enhancing the hospital’s ability to serve such patients. That’s saying something, given the number of patients who already come to the hospital for critical care. “Roughly 40 percent of our hospital patients come to us in the back of an ambulance or a helicopter,” Ratner explains. “The patients we take care of here are the sickest and most critical from all around the region.”
Architectural renderings show a sleek profile with floor-to-ceiling windows spread out over more than 162,000 square feet. The proposed facility will feature private patient rooms capable of transforming into critical-care beds, which represents the project’s premeditated flex. “If we have a situation where there might be a local disaster, we’re going to have top patient throughput and efficiency,” Ratner explains. And if Westchester ever experiences anything like COVID again, WMC will be prepared. “We’re going to have built-in pandemic readiness that will allow us to surge if needed,” Ratner continues. The building will come equipped with infection control measures, ventilator capabilities, and more. “That should give some comfort to the local residents that we will be able to handle anything that comes at us in the future.”
Indeed, Westchester residents have a lot to feel secure about when it comes to the quality of local healthcare. While the past several years have been punishing for most industries — pandemic shutdowns, inflation, and Amazon all taking a heavy toll — healthcare is an outlier. The region’s hospitals and medical groups have been bullish, expanding their physical footprints, bringing on cutting-edge specialists, and adding ultramodern technology to their toolboxes.
Westchester Medical Center is just one example among many. Eight miles south, at White Plains Hospital, another ambitious growth spurt is underway. “Nearly one million square feet have been added or renovated to the campus over the past 10 years, including our new, nine-story Center for Advanced Medicine and Surgery, which opened in 2021,” explains Susan Fox, the hospital’s president and CEO. The center uses techniques like hyperbaric medicine (i.e., oxygen therapy) and non-oncologic infusion to treat diseases like lupus and Crohn’s disease.
Over that same time period, White Plains Hospital’s medical staff has grown by about 50% — now topping 1,200 providers — and has increased its overall workforce by 66%.
Meanwhile, Northwell Health — the state’s largest healthcare provider and the organization that operates Phelps Hospital in Sleepy Hollow and Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco — has introduced complex imaging technology, a specialized lab for cardiac procedures, and cutting-edge robotics to its toolbox.
And at NewYork-Presbyterian Westchester (formerly Lawrence Hospital), recent years have been marked by multiple capital improvement projects. The Bronxville hospital has added new cancer treatment and operating rooms. It also unveiled a new Center for Sleep Medicine for treating a range of sleep disorders.
So what’s driving this growth? It’s a mix of trends and patterns, ranging from public-health crises and demographic changes to new technology. The result is a local healthcare infrastructure that can rival those of big cities — even New York City. “Patients are receiving the highest-quality healthcare close to home, and Westchester [has become] a regional hub for advanced care,” Fox says.
COVID Catalyzes Change
Three years of a pandemic have rattled and transformed just about every corner of Westchester, and healthcare is no exception. COVID brought challenges and tragedy, including hospitals overrun with sick patients and nearly 3,500 deaths. Ertha Small-Nicolas, an emergency department nurse manager at White Plains Hospital, reflected on the pandemic’s scary early days in an interview with Westchester Magazine. “At the height, we had everyone in his or her PPE [personal protective equipment], and you couldn’t recognize who was who, so we had our names written on the outside,” she explained in a 2020 interview.
But the pandemic also provided vital lessons and sparked innovation — changes that mean local hospitals are now better prepared for future health crises. “Coming out of the pandemic, we’ve made significant investments to cover not only COVID but also influenza and monkeypox,” explains Ratner of WMCHealth.
One of those investments is WMC’s novel drive-thru vaccination center, which began operation about two years ago. “It is one of the only drive-thru vaccine facilities,” Ratner says. “If you live in the area, you can drive up and get a flu shot, a COVID test, or a COVID vaccine.”
Westchester Medical Center is also addressing the issue of “long COVID or post-COVID,” which the CDC describes as a condition entailing “a wide range of ongoing health problems,” like fatigue, fever, chest pain, sleep trouble, and more. The condition can last weeks, months, or years, according to the CDC. “We’ve added a post-COVID and migraine-and-headache program,” Ratner says.
The pandemic also had a devastating effect on mental health, which compelled WMC to double down on their investment in the space. The Valhalla campus now has over 100 beds for behavioral health. “Now more than ever — after coming out of COVID, where there was isolation, substance abuse, and anxiety and depression — we needed to make sure we were there for the community,” Ratner explains.
COVID has also pushed local healthcare providers to experiment and succeed with telehealth. “We implemented remote monitoring about two years ago,” says Anthony Viceroy, president and COO of Summit Health, which has an ambulatory surgery center in Rye, urgent-care clinics in Yonkers, and other medical facilities spread across New Rochelle, White Plains, and Purchase. In 2022, Summit acquired the locally more familiar Westmed Medical Group. “We’re helping patients at home, when they’re not inside our clinics,” he adds. As long as patients have a phone, tablet, or computer with a camera, they can meet with physicians and therapeutic and psychiatric professionals.
“Patients are receiving the highest-quality healthcare close to home, and Westchester [has become] a regional hub for advanced care.”
—Susan Fox White Plains Hospital
“We implemented remote monitoring about two years ago. We’re helping patients at home, when they’re not inside our clinics.”
—Anthony Viceroy Summit Health
Even as the pandemic recedes, patients are continuing to use Summit’s telehealth program. “What you saw coming out of COVID was that people didn’t necessarily want to travel,” so the Summit team continues to think about how they can deliver world-class treatment, but close to home, Viceroy adds.
While COVID slowed or halted non-pandemic-related healthcare, momentum is quickly building once again. “What we saw post-COVID was a surge, especially in more surgical procedures, since all of the elective surgeries were on hold,” Viceroy says.
Innovation Arrives Locally
New medical advances are also driving Westchester’s healthcare boom. At White Plains Hospital, innovation is reshaping what types of heart surgeries are possible. “In 2021, we launched a world-class cardiac surgery program with renowned physicians,” explains CEO Susan Fox. Cutting-edge operating rooms and other technologies allowed the hospital to perform its first-ever open-heart surgery, in November of 2021. “The program has had extraordinary patient outcomes that far exceed national benchmarks, including a 100% 30-day survival rate for every patient since the launch of the program,” Fox adds.
White Plains Hospital is also pushing the boundaries of cancer treatment. “We remain committed to providing patients with access to clinical trials and cutting-edge research,” Fox says, noting that the hospital boasts novel diagnostic technology, such as one of the few PET/MRI machines in the state outside of New York City.
Progress treating strokes and neurological issues is also in effect at White Plains Hospital. In 2022, the hospital finished constructing a hybrid operating room complete with a biplane angiography suite. “That will allow us to perform thrombectomies, the most advanced stroke treatment available,” Fox explains, “and we are growing our neuroscience program, including neurointerventional radiology, neurosurgery, and outpatient neurologists.”
At Northern Westchester Hospital, innovation has become the status quo. “A few years ago, we opened two cardiac catheterization labs,” explains David Seligman, deputy western regional executive director of Northwell Health. These facilities — often called “cath labs” — feature highly trained cardiologists, advanced electrophysiology equipment, and rehab programs for coronary artery disease. “Historically, if a patient had come to the ER suffering a cardiac event that had a blockage, a lot of those patients would end up in an ambulance going elsewhere — sometimes to the city,” Seligman explains. “But we can now do that here, on-site, at Northern Westchester. We’ve already had a couple of thousand patients benefit in just a couple of years. It’s a level of service, a level of capability, that wasn’t available previously.”
In February of this year, the Mount Kisco hospital also became the first facility in the region to offer Aquablation therapy, a novel way to treat lower-urinary-tract symptoms caused by enlarged prostates. Aquablation therapy uses an FDA-approved surgical robot to target and remove prostate tissue.
Meanwhile, at Phelps, Northwell has just introduced an $8.4 million PET and CT scan imaging suite. The 3,700-square-foot facility is a major improvement in diagnostic convenience in the county, providing pain-free and noninvasive methods for organ and tissue study and the early detection of diseases such as lung cancer and breast cancer.
“Patients can now have these treatments in their community,” Seligman explains. “They don’t have to travel into Manhattan and hunt for these things.”
Sometimes innovation doesn’t take the shape of technology. Westchester Medical Center, for example, is also rethinking how it communicates with and serves different communities. “We’ve built the Ally Care Center, which is focused on serving the LGBT community,” Ratner explains. The hospital first began working with the community during the AIDS crisis late last century but has since expanded and rebranded its efforts. Patients at the center can receive HIV treatment but also access sexual health education, peer support groups, and hormone therapy. “We ensure that the LGBT community has a culturally competent set of providers and services that focus on the whole individual,” Ratner says.
Another catalyst for Westchester’s healthcare boom is simple: demand.
“The population is changing,” Ratner explains. “We have a population that is in large part aging. You’re seeing folks who are living longer with more chronic diseases and needing more care.” Indeed, according to data by the nonprofit Westchester Community Foundation, the number of residents over 85 years of age increased 58% between 2016 and 2022, and the number of residents between the ages of 60 and 84 grew by 34%.
Closely linked to this trend are New York’s health insurance policies, which provide some of the most comprehensive Medicare and Medicaid programs in the country. Indeed, New York spends more on Medicaid per person than any other state, according to Lending Tree data, and spent more than $75 billion total in 2021. As a result, New Yorkers — including many Westchester residents — can more easily access and afford healthcare services.
The county’s population has also grown about 5% since 2010, according to census data, and many of those people are very recent additions. “Before the pandemic, almost every county in the Hudson Valley was showing negative growth,” Ratner explains. “But due to folks wanting to get out of the city because of the pandemic, what was negative or flat is now positive growth in many of the counties we serve.”
The expansion of Westchester’s healthcare industry is now the status quo, according to local executives — and the competition among hospitals and medical networks will almost certainly keep it that way. “We’re focused on how to position ourselves for growth and expansion,” Ratner confirms.
And while WMCHealth is building its new tower, White Plains Hospital will be growing too. “Later this year, we will unveil the new Kleinman AFib center, featuring a third cardiac catheterization lab,” Fox says. “The center will support our cardiac electrophysiology program, which offers advanced treatment for a variety of heart conditions.”
Fortunately for Westchester residents, that growth doesn’t mean compromising quality. “For us, it’s always been: ‘How do we take really good care of patients?’” Viceroy says. Fox shares a similar sentiment: “We always say that quality is our North Star.”
Viceroy notes that in recent years, Westchester has been able to stand shoulder to shoulder with every other healthcare hub in the Northeast. “Unlike 10 or 15 years ago, you can get all your healthcare in Westchester,” he says, “and it’s the same quality of care you can expect from New York City.”
“Historically, if a patient had come to the ER suffering a cardiac event that had a blockage, a lot of those patients would end up in an ambulance going elsewhere — sometimes to the city. But we can now do that here, on-site, at Northern Westchester.”
—David Seligman Northwell Health