When the University of Utah’s hospital system completes its bold expansion into West Valley City in coming years, the new campus will do more than provide better access to health care for a complex, culturally diverse and underserved slice of Salt Lake County.
It will be part of a reimagining of how higher education engages with communities along the Wasatch Front, U. President Taylor Randall said.
“Higher education is at an inflection point, and it needs to change its approach from being more inward to outward, from more focused on what isn’t inside its walls, to how it affects its community,” Randall said. “And so we’ve really tried to design both the hospital and the educational programs that will go into that community, with the community in mind.”
The goals of the future hospital, he said, are to provide meaningful economic impact to the west side by employing residents who live near the facility, and to improve the health of a city that faces lower life expectancy and higher rates of serious conditions compared with the overall county.
The $800 million complex at 3750 S. 5600 West also represents a chance, Randall said, for the U. to dramatically diversify its workforce.
“If we’re going to have societal impact,” he said, “we have to be engaged in the communities and help them achieve their desires and dreams.”
To deliver that impact, the U. wants to tailor the future West Valley City complex to meet the distinct needs of a diverse city that has long lacked equitable access to medical care.
“Before, we would have taken the designs from any of our other clinics across the valley, including the look and feel, and just use that as a plug-and-play [model] for the West Valley hospital,” said RyLee Curtis, director of community engagement for University of Utah Health. “But now there have been several factors that have contributed to us thinking differently about this hospital specifically.”
Curtis said the U. wants the new hospital to feel like it belongs to a community like West Valley City, where so many cultures converge.
That means ensuring patients get vital health information in their own language and have access to care providers who understand their cultural background. It means providing access to, for instance, halal pharmaceuticals (allowed under Islamic laws) and offering foods from various cultures in the cafeteria. It also means investing in minority-owned businesses and confronting head-on the historical inequities on the west side.
“There’s this real desire for the university to focus on whole-person health care and education,” Curtis said. “So how are we thinking about social drivers of health? Like access to housing, transportation, healthy food, child care, and not just in health care but also to education pathways.”
What will the new West Valley City hospital have?
The U. plans to start construction in summer 2024. A state bond, to be repaid through clinic revenues, will help pay for the complex.
The first phase is scheduled to open in late 2026 or early 2027 and will provide more comprehensive care than the U.’s existing west-side clinic, Westridge Health Center, located along the border of West Valley City and Taylorsville.
The new health campus will include an emergency room and space for primary care doctors, heart care, orthopedics, women’s health, mental health care, dental care and support services.
With the new campus, commutes to U. medical centers will get dramatically shorter for west-siders. For now, 85,000 residents on the Salt Lake Valley’s west side spend a combined 350,000 hours annually traveling to the U.’s main hospital in east Salt Lake City.
The U. also wants the new complex’s educational opportunities to be more accessible to nearby residents, so officials are considering offering flexible schedules and child care options for future students.
Neighbors meet with U. engagement teams monthly to talk about what they want from the new hospital.
Liliana Martinez, a West Valley City resident and health partnership manager for the school’s University Neighborhood Partners program, helps facilitate those conversations.
“To be heard by the university, to me, that’s a big deal, because it doesn’t happen,” she said, “especially on the west side.”
More west-siders in health care
Martinez is excited to see educational and leadership opportunities become available to her neighbors with the new hospital campus, and the U. has pledged to give west-siders opportunities to break into the medical field.
Dr. Wendy Hobson-Rohrer, associate vice president for the U.’s Health Sciences Education Unit, said the school already has a need for health care workers at its main hospital, a need that is only going to swell in coming years. Besides, she said, the community wants to see familiar faces in those roles.
To help west-siders get a shot at those positions, the U. launched the College2Career initiative, which aims to train a wide range of health care workers, including medical assistants, physical therapists, pharmacy technicians and doctors.
The program targets west-siders interested in health care careers but is open to others as well. Factors such as income are considered, but the program is flexible.
Hobson-Rohrer said the goal is to reach a community that has not had access to these kinds of programs in the past.
“We’re really just trying to look at what it will take for people to succeed, like first-generation students who may not know how to navigate our system,” Hobson-Rohrer said, “because university systems are not easy.”
The program already is underway, with most classes at the main U. campus. Online and hybrid courses are available, but the school is eyeing expansion to the west side.
It’s all part of the U.’s efforts to diversify its health care workforce to minimize biases, improve health outcomes and provide a pathway to higher-paying jobs.
“We do know that our health outcomes are not as good on the west side of town. We know the mortality rates are higher,” Hobson-Rohrer said. “So we definitely want to try to address that by increasing the diversity and the representation from our west side.”
Correction • Feb. 1, 2023, 10 a.m.: This story has been updated to show how much the complex is expected to cost.
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.