Health Care

Hospitals stress service as they compete for patients

Wichita hospitals that used to boast about the latest high-tech equipment are now focusing on something decidedly more old-fashioned:

Customer satisfaction.

Private rooms, interactive TVs and restaurant-style menus are among the tools they're using to keep their customers happy.

As with other companies, the goal is repeat business. But for hospitals, the payoff comes in other ways as well:

* Happy patients tend to have shorter hospital stays and fewer readmissions, both of which affect hospitals' bottom lines. Insurance companies reimburse based on treatment, not on length of stay, and may soon penalize hospitals for readmissions.

* When patients share their hospital experiences with others, they may focus less on how quickly they got well and more on how quickly someone responded to a call light.

* With the end of exclusive insurance contracts and more patient choice, hospitals now have to compete for business that used to be directed their way.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services updates patient satisfaction information quarterly, basing it on surveys sent to random patients. In the latest results for Wichita's three general hospitals, about 4 of 5 patients — at best — said they would definitely recommend the hospital at which they'd been a patient. Scores on measures such as quiet rooms and explanations about medications were much lower.

That gives the hospitals a lot of room for improvement and ways to position themselves as they go after customers.

Via Christi Health is trying to create "the ideal patient experience" at its new hospital in far west Wichita, said Janell Moerer, vice president for business development.

Communication devices will do away with the need for overhead pages, and other technology will be used to keep the noise level down. Staff members will operate "at the top of their license... making sure we're using the right staff at the right time," Moerer said.

Outlook calendars will let family members know when to expect a physician's or therapist's visit. Interactive TV sets will be used for more robust and patient-relevant education, and electronic records will help eliminate unnecessary and duplicative paperwork, she said.

Via Christi is setting up a 20-bed prototype unit on its St. Joseph Campus to test technology and work flow, in advance of the opening of the west campus in August.

As procedures prove themselves, they'll be adopted at other Via Christi campuses, Moerer said.

Building the new hospital, northwest of 21st Street and 151st Street West, has given Via Christi a chance to re-examine "what is it we're trying to do, and for whom," Moerer said.

Wesley Medical Center and Galichia Heart Hospital tout private rooms as part of their patient satisfaction efforts.

Galichia has had private rooms since its opening; Wesley finished a remodeling project in July that completed the shift to private rooms.

Patients now expect every hospital to have the latest equipment, said Alisa Crawford, Galichia's vice president for business development.

"Hospitals can set themselves apart through the patient experience," she said. "So much of our business is service and relational."

Galichia uses a national firm to survey its patients and has found that satisfaction is linked to "communication, being kept informed, those kinds of things," Crawford said.

The hospital uses survey findings to make improvements, she said. Among them: a restaurant-type menu that allows patients to "order what they want, when they want it."

Galichia also has bumped up its employee satisfaction efforts.

"We believe that employee satisfaction is tied very strongly to patient satisfaction," Crawford said.

Steve Edgar, chief operating officer at Wesley, said Wesley has always scored well on measures such as heart attack and pneumonia care but has done less well on patient satisfaction. That's why it's making a concerted effort to improve scores.

"People relate to people," he said. Service "is not necessarily about the tech or the equipment."

The hospital has adopted a "Culture of Always" that includes escorting patients and visitors to their destinations, rather than directing them. Wesley executives and managers are "rounding" each Wednesday morning, to talk with staff and patients they otherwise wouldn't see.

Each room has a patient access line that connects to the director or administrator on call whose job is to find out "what can I do right now to make it better" regardless of what the issue may be, said Paul Petitte, Wesley's vice president for marketing and public relations. The person who handles the issue returns before the day is out, to make sure it's been resolved.