Hospitals seeking women's attention

Females make most medical decisions in their families

August 05, 2005|By Karen Blum | By Karen Blum,Special to the Sun

When Nancy Welsh's breast cancer was diagnosed in June 2004, she and her husband began a lengthy process of interviewing physicians for her treatment.

As the Laurel couple visited the offices of various oncologists, radiation specialists and plastic surgeons, they took careful notes, not only about the procedures being recommended but about the physicians' attitudes and office settings. They paid attention to which doctors took cell phone calls in the middle of their conversations or talked down to them, and who had outdated technology or dirty bathrooms.

"You want to have someone who's there for you, and a clean office," said Welsh, 54. "I am a customer service-type person."

Though she ultimately chose a surgeon at Mercy Medical Center because of his expertise and bedside manner, she was also wowed by the breast program's customer service.

The staff sent flowers to her hospital room, gave her a "goody bag" including a humorous book on living with cancer, and provided a specially designed pillow to protect her incision from the car's seat belt on the drive home from the hospital.

Women like Welsh are a hot commodity for hospitals. With women responsible for an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of all health care decisions for their families, hospitals nationwide are doing everything they can to reach women, including collaborating with women's groups and organizations, or local parent-teacher associations, said Rhoda Weiss, a national health care consultant based in Santa Monica, Calif. Even men's health programs are being marketed to women these days, Weiss said.

"Women today are absolutely, positively the target" when it comes to health care marketing, she said. It's a trend that's been going on since the 1970s, she explained, "when hospitals realized that we are the powerhouses behind health care decisions."

Appealing extras

Several local hospitals have recently ramped up their efforts to attract female patients.

In June, Johns Hopkins Hospital started a women's concierge service to help coordinate appointments among its specialists. In March, Sinai Hospital opened a $13 million renovated women's health center, featuring seven private labor and delivery rooms with homelike decor, comfortable sofa beds and private bathrooms with oversized showers and tubs. And Mercy will soon celebrate the second anniversary of its $47 million Weinberg Center, a six-story medical building dedicated to women's health.

Besides offering such traditional medical services as a breast center and gynecological care, the Weinberg Center boasts extras including a boutique that helps fit women for post-mastectomy undergarments and swimwear, a resource center that stocks reference material on women's health and offers free Internet access, and a "medi-spa" where women can get, among other things, laser hair removal and body scrubs.

Health care trends

Outreach efforts like these reflect several converging trends, experts say. With changes in the demographics surrounding community hospitals and aging infrastructure, "we are in the most extensive period of hospital rebuilding" of the last three decades, said Rick Wade, a senior vice president at the American Hospital Association.

The competition among hospitals and health delivery systems also has led to a focus on greater integration of care, said Alan Lyles, a professor of health systems management at the University of Baltimore. Hospitals are increasing their attention to meeting customers' expectations, Lyles said.

At Hopkins, the concierge idea came out of focus groups with local women, said Dr. Redonda Miller, medical director of the new service.

"Women often don't know who to call or who to see, and there's no good portal for them," Miller said. "This is part of a growing effort to be more customer-friendly."

For Sinai, the decision to upgrade was spurred by comparisons to other hospitals. As part of its marketing efforts, Sinai focused on Orthodox Jewish women living near the hospital, hoping they would take advantage of the hospital's proximity and services, such as a cafeteria that serves kosher food.

"It's a very competitive marketplace," said Jill Bloom, a Sinai spokeswoman. "We needed to do something to keep up with what's going on at other facilities."

Mercy's efforts date back to 1992, said the hospital's president and chief executive, Thomas Mullen. The downtown hospital didn't want to move to the suburbs or join a health care network, so to stay competitive, the hospital's leadership decided to focus on women. Top physicians were recruited in areas such as gynecological cancers, and Mercy soon found itself "99.9 percent maxed out on space," says spokesman Dan Collins. Thus began the planning for the new pavilion.

Since the building opened in 2003, admissions are up 18 percent, the number of plastic surgery and breast surgery patients is up 40 percent and the number of radiology patients is up 65 percent, Mullen said.

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