The face of health care in Washington is changing as the battle for patients intensifies, forcing many hospitals to rethink how and where they administer medical care. The dilemma for medical facilities throughout the state: how to cut costs in a difficult economy and still meet the growing demands of choosy consumers who prefer a dose of patient pampering with their hospital experience.
Not too long ago, construction cranes were visible at nearly every hospital in the Puget Sound region as they upgraded facilities to become more attractive to patients. While many hospitals continue to make facility improvements, the difficult economic environment and national health care reform initiatives also prompt a shift toward cost containment and emphasizing patient value over volume, says Seattle health care consultant Len Henzke, with ECG Management Consultants.
Some institutions, including Swedish Medical Center and Grays Harbor Community Hospital, have already resorted to layoffs and pay cuts to curb costs. “The layoffs will likely continue, and hospitals will have to become more efficient and rethink the way they provide health care,” Henzke says. “Whereas in the past they emphasized attracting patients and filling beds, health care reform initiatives will force hospitals to become more focused on producing superior patient outcomes. They’re simply going to have to do more for less.”
Despite these cost-cutting measures, medical facilities throughout Washington are forging ahead with strategies to provide upscale amenities and more choices for patients and their families.
Swedish Medical Center’s Issaquah campus, which offers everything from gourmet restaurants and a mini shopping mall to public meeting spaces and facilities for child care, falls in line with what the Center for Studying Health System Change says is the next chapter in hospital competition: targeted geographic expansion into new markets with well-insured people. The jury is still out on whether the competitive strategies will drive up the costs of health care. In an April 2012 study, the Washington, D.C.-based policy research organization said: “Payers’ and policy makers’ most commonly cited concerns were that new and potentially unneeded capacity will raise costs. Hospitals frequently countered that their expansions are necessary and sometimes overdue responses to population shifts and that cost increases reflect their efforts to provide high-quality care, not the cost of financing their expansions.”
John Jastrem, CEO of Callison, which designed Swedish’s Issaquah campus, says his firm took a page from its retail experience and applied it to health care. “We created a wellness and retail environment tailored for Swedish,” Jastrem notes. “The result is a neighborhood hub for wellness that services the patients, staff and community of Issaquah.”
He adds health care providers are focusing more on differentiating themselves from the competition and providing the best experience possible for patients and their families. “They really do have to look at who the consumer is,” he says. “The trend going forward is kind of a combination of wellness, support and entertainment.”
Kathy Feek, an art consultant for health care facilities and the coordinator of the vast art collection at Kirkland’s Evergreen Hospital Medical Center, echoes Jastrem. “People do have options these days,” she says, “and they want to go where the environment is warm and people oriented.”
In other words, patients want a larger dose of humanity with their medical experience.
“Historically, health care facilities and hospitals have really been workshops where physicians came to ply their trade,” notes John Milne, vice president of medical affairs at Swedish Medical Center. But he says the vision for health care in the 21st century has shifted to focus on the comfort of the patient—and the patient’s family.
That vision is transforming the hospital experience. The boxy, boring rooms of our grandparents’ day, which sometimes accommodated up to three patients at a time, are being replaced with energy efficient, patient friendly towers providing quieter single suites for privacy, infection control and comfort. Hospital community spaces now include beautiful fish tanks, tranquil healing gardens and sophisticated art collections. Lobbies are warm and welcoming; some even resemble grand foyers at high-end resorts, with elaborate glass atriums and fireplaces. Musicians offer mini-concerts, and licensed professionals give everything from massages to pet visits and even “mirth therapy” to get patients and their families laughing.
The new Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett features contemporary decor, hotel-like rooms and scenic views. Photo by Ben Benschneider
Even intensive care units are being overhauled to improve the patient experience. St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor and St. Elizabeth in Enumclaw now have “talking beds” in critical care areas; these units can be programmed to provide critical information as well as ask and answer questions in 22 languages, a big benefit to nurses and doctors. To ease tension, the beds can massage a patient’s back and emit soothing sounds of waterfalls or chirping birds. The idea is to provide “an experience for the mind, body and soul,” says Gale Robinette, manager of media relations for Franciscan Health System, which operates five hospitals and a network of 90 clinics in the South Sound region. “We want to provide a comfortable, welcoming and safe environment.”
Hospitals are not only getting makeovers on the inside. Lush gardens with soothing, restorative qualities are being incorporated into many new projects. “They bring a sense of humanity and compassion to patients and families,” says Daniel Winterbottom, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington. Winterbottom has created several restorative gardens, including the rooftop healing garden at the Pete Gross House in Seattle (a temporary housing complex for cancer patients) and Seattle Children’s Play Garden, designed for children with disabilities. Winterbottom was motivated to create healing gardens after viewing the glaring fluorescent lights and drab walls at the facility where his mother received treatment for ovarian cancer.
And more than the facilities and grounds are changing; hospitals now offer an amazing array of new services. Having a baby or thinking of having one? Try “OB Speed Dating” sessions at Swedish Medical Center. Participants conduct five-minute, one-on-one interviews with six to eight obstetricians, family-practice doctors who offer OB services and midwives. “It’s all about face time and sitting in front of that physician to see if you connect,” says Kellie Ryan, a business development specialist for Women and Infants Outpatient Services at Swedish. If you hit it off with a specific practitioner, you can schedule a follow-up “date” for medical care. “This was the perfect way to find just the right OB/GYN,” says Elizabeth Willis of Maple Valley, who attended one of the sessions. “I wish they had this for pediatricians.”
While the wave of new hospital amenities and patient- and family-friendly programs might seem like costly marketing ploys, some see the changes as earnest attempts at revolutionary health care reform. Says Beth Zborowski, director of communications for the Washington State Hospital Association: “The ultimate goal is to make sure patients [and their families] have the best health care experience possible, which includes providing an environment that is conducive to healing.”
Some of the New Amenities Featured in Local Hospitals
CONCERTS IN THE LOBBY
Volunteers at Evergreen Hospital Medical Center in Kirkland and Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue ease hospital jitters with piano concerts. Overlake has violin players and a harpist, too.
Who needs a trip to the mall when everything is available at the Shops at Swedish in the medical center’s new $365 million Issaquah campus? With four boutiques, a multi-use space for yoga, a child care center, a gourmet café, a Starbucks and a five-story atrium lobby with a fireplace, you’ll want to visit often.
The $460 million Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett features an emergency department the size of a football field, with calming lavender-accented decor. The 12-story medical tower has hotel-like private rooms, many with mountain or Puget Sound views, finished-wood flooring and frosted-glass sliding doors to allow for diffused natural light.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer issue of Seattle Health, a new magazine from Tiger Oak Publications, which also publishes Seattle Business.