Hospitals Get More Hospitable

Today's medical centers are shedding their impersonal, sterile images and improving patient amenities, from spa services and abundant greenery to tastier food


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 Hospitals are probably on everyone’s short list of least-favorite places. From the noisy chaos of emergency rooms to the stark discomfort of intensive care, from waiting-room boredom to less-than-private rooms, hospitals are hardly the Ritz.
Or are they? Hospital administrators have begun to rethink the patient experience, seeking ways to make “guests” feel more as if they’ve come to a resort than a place of “last resort.” The key is to make the ailing occupants feel more comfortable, cared for, and catered to — from admittance to release. In the process, many medical providers are realizing that a spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down. They’re fluffing up the amenities with improved menus and décor. And they’re soliciting user feedback, hoping that information will give them a competitive edge in the massive health-care marketplace. Better yet, life’s little niceties can speed healing.

 

“We’re listening to more of what the patient needs and wants,” says Janet Keller, vice president of patient-care services and operations at the new St. John Providence Park Hospital in Novi. “Before, hospitals were more health-care provider-driven — what was most convenient for doctors and nurses. We’ve challenged our thinking on that. And the result is going to be an environment where doctors and nurses enjoy practicing.”
Hospital care soaked up fully one-third of the $1.86 trillion the United States spent on health services and supplies in 2005, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. That portion was by far the largest single expense category. Hospitals doing business in large metropolitan areas with many high-quality health-care options need to set themselves apart from the competition if they want to safeguard their own financial health. 
Doing so means listening to patients first. At the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, many policies are shaped by its patient and family advisory council, says Karen Goldman, Karmanos vice president of cancer patient care services. “You’ve got to have patients and families involved in everything,” she says. “You can’t think you know what’s best for them.”
In a bid to boost their appeal, local hospitals are readdressing practices, starting with a patient’s very first moments in the door. That begins with an effort to turn the waiting-room experience from cramped and drawn-out to short-stay and sunlit. Hospitals are adding greenery, natural light, calming colors, and art — all amenities they say are proved to reduce anxiety.
At St. John’s Assarian Cancer Center in Novi, the foyer feels more spa-like than surgical. The waiting area features a large atrium with soaring windows, a water pool, and areas to sit and meditate while facing outdoor views. The under-construction St. John’s Providence Park will include a six-story glass atrium, and views throughout the hospital will provide glimpses of the lush 200-acre campus.
Patient rooms are also getting face-lifts. At Henry Ford’s new West Bloomfield site, all patient rooms will face either outdoor green space or an indoor landscaped atrium. At Oakwood Hospitals, patients can turn on the Care Channel, which plays soothing music over a series of pleasant nature images, a perk that’s designed to drown out stress-inducing ambient noise. At Beaumont, every unit is equipped with a kitchenette stocked with treats and with a refrigerator where families may store food.
And increasingly, patient rooms are private, a change that improves patient safety and comfort. “You’ve probably never walked into a hotel and asked, ‘Do you have a room I could share with someone?’” says Marco Capicchioni, Henry Ford’s vice president of facility services and real estate. “The No. 1 reason for a private room is safety. It cuts down on nursing errors and patient infections. We think the patients will be able to sleep more. It relieves stress. When you take all those aspects, how could you even think about not building private rooms?” 
Another key change is better food. Hospital meals have long had an unsavory reputation, and changing that is a priority for consumer-focused hospitals. “Every patient satisfaction survey we see raises questions about the food,” says David Seaman, executive vice president at the Michigan Hospital Association. “If that’s something the patient remembers, it’s not a good experience.”
At Oakwood, Beaumont, and Henry Ford, room service is available in all or part of the hospital, and menus have been re-imagined to provide a more appealing range of choices.
“Room service is extremely popular,” says Moe Rustom, clinical manager in the ethics department at Oakwood Hospitals. “Patients can order a customized meal, as opposed to getting turkey, mashed potatoes, and peas at 5 o’clock.”
At Henry Ford’s new West Bloomfield Township facility, the menu’s recipes will be all-new, and the food will come primarily from regional organic farms and meat producers, says Capicchioni. Henry Ford re-evaluated its food program after hiring Gerard van Grinsven from the Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn as its president and CEO of its new West Bloomfield site. 
In fact, bringing in staff from the hospitality industry seems to be the latest trend. Beaumont’s director of service excellence, Nicole Dent, is a former Ritz-Carlton staffer. The hospital’s efforts to improve customer satisfaction have included an upscale food court in its Royal Oak building, where the new south tower has a deli, bakery, Starbucks, and Ben & Jerry’s treats, plus a concierge service that will run errands for patients, visitors, and employees. Patients and their families also can take advantage of spa services, including massages or manicures, even in waiting rooms.
At Oakwood Hospital and Medical Center in Dearborn, serving appealing food means recognizing clients’ specific dietary needs. Because the hospital serves a large number of Muslim patients, its kitchen serves Halal meals, prepared in accordance with Muslim rules. The hospital also offers rooms facing Mecca and on-site Arabic and Spanish interpreters.
Oakwood also reaches out to patients of diverse faiths in its chapel at the Dearborn Hospital and Medical Center. The chapel is a round space with portions adapted for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and it provides comfort carts stocked with Korans as well as Bibles. 
Better food, updated décor, and better service can go a long way to making patients happier. They can also help make them healthier, the Hospital Associaton’s David Seaman says. “What’s clear is that an overtly institutional setting is not the most conducive to healing.”
Certainly, patients know they’re not checking in for a vacation stay. They assume they’re about to experience some discomfort. The more the environment provides the comforts of home — or a resort — the calmer visitors will be. Then, Seaman says, you can “talk with them and their families about what they’ve discovered and what’s required.” 

Stanard is a Ferndale-based freelancer. E-mail: editorial@hourdetroit.com.

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