December 22, 2014

A Wealth of Healthcare

Money can't buy love or happiness. But can it buy better health? Some Gulfshore providers-and patients-are betting it can, or at least that it can add comfort and convenience to the often unpleasant process of receiving medical care.

In the last few years, a few physicians around the country, citing their frustration with the assembly-line aspects of managed care, started offering "concierge medicine" to patients who can afford to pay an annual fee that can range from a few thousand dollars to up to $20,000 in some cities. That ensures they will receive prompt and preferential care whenever they need it. .Naples Health Care Associates has brought the concept here with its Patient Advantage Program. For $3,000 per year for individuals and $5,000 for families ($2,000 and $3,500 for seasonal residents), patients purchase membership in a club, of sorts.

"The whole concept of concierge medicine is service," says Thomas Reed, the company's chairman of the board. That translates into the kind of health care rarely seen since the advent of insurance-dominated medical practices. Doctors who make house calls-within 24 hours of your request. Physicians who are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with each doctor maintaining a private line dedicated solely to these preferred patients. A "personal health coordinator" assigned to each member to facilitate patients' needs, questions and care. While some doctors now serve as many as 4,000 patents, doctors in the Patient Advantage Program have around 400 to 500 patients.

With fewer patients, there is less waiting time-no more sitting in a waiting room with a dozen other people for 45 minutes or more beyond your scheduled appointment time. And when you do see your doctor, you can take all the time you need-the minimum time spent with each patient in the program is an hour, says vice president Minda Donovan, vice president of.

R.N. Cindy Joy is one of the personal health coordinators at the practice. Her job includes checking with each patient in the program once a week, arranging appointments and referrals, and generally maintaining patient satisfaction. "It's a different level of service," she explains. "Most people wouldn't get that level of attention."

For example, Joy may visit a preferred patient at home before breakfast to take blood, so that he need make only one trip to the office-to obtain the results-rather than two. Recently, she made all the arrangements for a patient who was taking a cruise and needed an oxygen tank Like the physicians in the program, she carries a cell phone dedicated exclusively to Patient Advantage Program patients. "Any little thing that we can do to help," she says. "We're just trying to take the hassle away from them."

Concierge care isn't the only medical upgrade out there. Hospital rooms, not known as luxury destinations, also now cater to the privileged class. At Naples Community Hospital, a premium of $329 per night more than the semiprivate room rate will net you a room in the Gulf-view Suites. These sixth-floor rooms do indeed feature a Gulf view, and they come with amenities like a plush hospital robe, chocolate mints, and a special menu that includes steak and shrimp.

The suites-which are actually single rooms-have been open for nearly two years, and generally stay full in season. "The attitude here was one of 'Whatever it takes,'" says director of public relations Deborah Curry of the exclusive rooms. "It's a nationwide trend. The consumer is more demanding-plus, our country is becoming more affluent."

Inside one of the carpeted suites, cabinetry hides equipment and electrical connections behind the bed's wooden headboard, and the television perched in the armoire features a VCR as well as cable channels. Patients are brought a menu in a leather binder, from which they can order any amount of anything they like-within doctor's guidelines for their condition, of course. "It's sort of like a cruise," says Curry with a smile.

The Cleveland Clinic, Naples, offers a similar service in its "executive area," a section of rooms available for a $300 per night premium. The surcharge buys patients a room slightly more upscale than the hospital's already elegant rooms. Premium-paying patients also get a spiffy hospital robe and any newspaper they want. Premium payments also mean housekeeping upon request and an executive chef at the patient's beck and call. "It's basically what you would receive at a five-star hotel," says Cleveland Clinic's chief of staff, Robert Zehr.

High-quality surroundings don't always come with a premium price tag. Even if you elect not to pay for a room in the Cleveland Clinic's executive area, you're still guaranteed top-notch care and amenities. The clinic's glass-and-granite exterior, lush landscaping, and splashing fountains outside set the tone for what you can expect on the inside: the understated elegance of a fine hotel. The clinic's creators in fact worked with administrators from the Ritz-Carlton, and much of the practice's philosophy is taken directly from that of the renowned hotel chain, right down to the triangle fold of the toilet paper roll in every single room. "Healing hospitality" is a part of that philosophy. It's a concept that marketing manager Lisa Anderson says recognizes the salubrious effects of ambience, a professional and courteous staff, a pleasant atmosphere, and good food. "If your surroundings are friendly and appealing, you'll heal faster," she explains.

The clinic's trappings certainly fit the bill. The lobby resembles the reception area of an upscale office building, with marble floors, high ceilings and a concierge desk staffed by hospital volunteers. Original paintings and photographs line the walls of nearly every hallway. Waiting areas look more like living rooms, with comfortable sofas and chairs. Many areas are carpeted, but even where there is linoleum, it's top-of-the-line, its marbled earth tones waxed to a high gloss.

Inside the adjoining hospital's rooms, cherry-wood cabinets hide hospital equipment behind the comforter-covered bed. Each room has laptop connections and a small refrigerator, as well as a 25-inch TV/VCR above the desk area. Countertops are Corian. Chairs recline. Wide, sunny windows are covered with blinds, sheers, and curtains. Lighting is subtle and atmospheric, contributing to the sense of being in a hotel, rather than a hospital. There are no hospital smells. Hallways are clear of gurneys and wheelchairs. Hospital personnel move with calm purpose, and PA announcements break the peaceful atmosphere only in cases of emergency.

If the Cleveland Clinic is reminiscent of a fine hotel, at Health Park Medical Center in Fort Myers, the lobby recalls a ritzy shopping mall, with a soaring, skylight-capped tiled atrium, glass elevators, and grand piano complete with pianist. Rock pools and fountains bubble beneath the music, and verdant plantings surround the coffee bistro in the lobby's center. As at the Cleveland Clinic, rooms are all private, and feature large windows; sofas, chairs, and cocktail tables.

"It's not just about how pretty it is; it's about what the quality of care is like," says Kathy Shierling, executive director of Lee Cardiac Care. For example, she explains, nurses' stations are scattered throughout each area rather than concentrated in one place, so that "your nurse should be no more than four or five doors away from you." She notes that the hospital was rated one of the top 100 in the country for cardiovascular care three out of the last four years, and this past year received a citation as one of the top 100 ICUs.

Staff members like to point out that at both the Cleveland Clinic and Health Park, elegance and service are par for the course. Both clinics accept most major insurance. And Shierling says Health Park, as part of the Lee Memorial Health System, is "one of the lowest-cost providers in the state."

Why all the sudden emphasis on service and comfort, in an industry long known for its bottom-line, no-frills mentality?

Health Park's Shierling attributes it to aging baby boomers, who have more disposable income than their parents and don't mind spending it on their own comfort and good health. "They want to be pampered," she says.

"Basically, you get what you pay for in life," says Thomas Reed of Naples Health Care Associates. But he adds, "You don't have to be a millionaire to want to have this program."

In fact, providing better service and a more attractive atmosphere can pay off even for providers that don't charge premium fees. Overhead at the outset for more elegant surroundings may be somewhat higher, but it can make up for itself in increased efficiency and increased patient volume-Health Park boasts an impressive 88 percent occupancy rate year-round, for example.

"You put good quality in, and it lasts," agrees Geoffrey Moebius, hospital administrator for the Cleveland Clinic. By using materials like granite for the building's exterior and Corian for countertops, the hospital may spend more up-front, only to see a return in decreased repair and renovation costs.

And some amenities cost a medical practice nothing at all-things like courtesy, friendliness, helpfulness. "These things don't cost you any more, but they go an awful long way," says Cleveland Clinic's Anderson. "This is a people business."

And that may be the best explanation of all-that in a field that revolves around caring for people, the patients are the ones who will increasingly reserve the right to choose the provider that best meets their needs. As with any business-and for better or worse, health care is a business-competition means providers have to earn customers' loyalty by offering the best care in the best environment.