Hospitals get 5-star upgrades

When medical centers work like well-run hotels, the outcome helps patients, staff - and the bottom line.

By Deborah Kong, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Windowless corridors, drab paint and crowded rooms have typified hospitals for more than a century - and the effect can be downright depressing.

Get ready for a radical shift.

The extensive use of natural light has led to shorter patient stays and a happier staff at Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, Mich.
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By embracing a new school of thought called evidence-based design, a few pioneering hospitals have shown that more creatively planned facilities can lead to satisfied patients, a happier staff, and a healthier bottom line.

The model for these new medical centers: high-end hotels.

Take, for example, Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, Mich. The lush greenery, indoor pond, and reading spaces in its lobby could just as easily belong in a Hilton. So could the entryway of Parrish Medical Center in Titusville, Fla., completed just four and a half years ago, with its soaring glass dome roof and tranquil pool. Musicians play classical music there several days a week.

The changes--especially the natural light and soothing music--receive high marks from the staff, and costly employee turnover has dropped from a 14 percent annual rate to 12.5 percent since 2001.

Hospitals like this have come a long way from the Nightingale ward, named for the British nurse who served in the Crimean War and was one of the chief influences on modern hospital design. It was Florence Nightingale who advanced the idea that well-organized hospitals could be better environments for healing.

But a cornerstone of her philosophy was a floor plan designed for the convenience of nurses, not patients. Her wards were large rooms lined with as many as three dozen beds, making it easy to quickly spot patients in need of emergency care.

That model has been turned on its head at St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul, Minn., where identical single rooms have lounge space and private bathrooms. Likewise, the new 10-story, $222 million addition to Cooper University Hospital set to open in Camden, N.J., next fall will have well-lit private rooms and a staff trained in customer service by Ritz-Carlton.

Don't be surprised if your neighborhood hospital soon gets a similar makeover. The economics of health care in the United States are changing. Baby boomers are headed into their high-maintenance years, and while they're living longer than their parents, that doesn't mean they won't need hospital care. Census data shows that the population ages 65 and older is expected to nearly double to 72 million by 2030.

Meanwhile, hospitals built in the 1950s to serve the parents of boomers are nearing the end of their life cycle. "It's like a perfect storm," says Anjali Joseph, director of research at the Center for Health Design. She expects a golden age of health-care construction, with U.S. spending projected to top $45 billion this year, up from $11.6 billion in 1997.

The center's data shows that better design can lead to big savings. In its study based on a hypothetical facility, the center estimated that design features would add $12 million to the cost of a regional hospital, but that those costs could be recouped in just over a year from operational improvements such as fewer patient falls and reduced turnover among nurses.

Such changes are especially important in today's medical climate. Emergency rooms in big-city hospitals are crowded with the uninsured, and non emergency patients have no qualms about passing the nearest hospital in favor of the swankier facility across town. When hospitals with empty beds are going bankrupt, it pays to make a patient's stay as comfortable--and brief--as possible.

That mind-set drove the redesign of the new cardiac comprehensive critical-care unit at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. The 56-bed complex, which opened in 1999, has "flex-rooms" that minimize the need to move frail patients.

"In the past we focused on the caregiver," says Joy Fay, director of clinical operations for the unit. "Instead, health-care providers need to think, 'If I'm in bed as a patient, what would I feel like?'" The new perspective seems to be paying off. Patient dissatisfaction at Methodist is just 3 percent, and the facility saved an estimated $5 million in its first year of operations, thanks to reduced errors and staff overtime.

Deborah Kong is a writer in Berkeley.


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