Hospital’s guesthouse and concierge services provide four-star treatment

It’s not just a benefit for the hospital and families anymore; it’s a must

Cathryne Woolery, operations manager of guest housing for Providence Health System in Portland, OR, is a woman with a mission.

"My biggest challenge is how to get the word out that guest housing is needed, that it’s not just a benefit anymore, but a must. If you don’t have a guesthouse, you need some kind of housing program, like a concierge service."

Under Woolery’s direction, Providence has both a guesthouse — which she has overseen since it opened five years ago — and a more recently established concierge service, where patients and families making use of the health system’s medical expertise can find a comfortable, affordable place to stay.

The Travis and Beverly Cross Guest Housing Center — named for a former Providence St. Vincent administrator and his wife, an active hospital volunteer — was the result of the Sisters of Providence recognizing a huge need and thinking ahead, Woolery says. The center, which is part of patient access services, was modeled after similar establishments on the East Coast, where hospital guesthouses are more common, she adds.

The need is even more urgent today, Woolery notes, as more rural hospitals close and patients seek medical care farther from home. "Traveling costs have become an enormous concern. What happens for those who can’t afford a hotel?"

When Woolery had to start turning away or not guaranteeing rooms for people because the guesthouse always was full, she looked for other solutions. She did a survey on what patients want when traveling to the Portland area, especially in an urgent situation, and began working with nearby hotels to see if they could meet those requirements.

"We looked at access to the rooms, whether there was an elevator or just stairs, and if they would offer shuttle service between the hotel and the hospital," Woolery says. "I would go in and look at the establishment, to see if it was a place our hospital would be proud to refer someone. They had to come under our standards."

Other issues addressed were whether the hotel was within 10 minutes or three miles of the hospital, and if it would offer a patient rate that was cheaper than its corporate rate, she notes. "That eliminated a lot right off the bat."

In the course of her investigation, Woolery discovered that many of the hotels on lists distributed by the Providence marketing department were not up to par. "I’m certainly not blaming the marketing department, which was trying to be a good neighbor by providing this information, but it was something we needed to stop doing."

Now the list of approved hotels has been extended to include the names of recommended restaurants in the area, she adds. In the past, patients or families looking for a place to eat were dependent on random suggestions from hospital personnel, Woolery says. "It wasn’t right or wrong, but it wasn’t something that anybody had looked into."

When booking rooms and making referrals, she takes into account the potential guest’s financial status, she explains. "If I have one empty room and two people who need to come in, I will take the person without funds [at the guest house] and send the person with financial means to a hotel."

The guesthouse charges a flat fee, but rates are adjusted depending on the length of stay, Woolery explains. "It’s more for one night than for two to seven nights, and for every week longer, the cost goes down. If you really have [serious] medical needs, we want to help you the most."

Those who ask for help with the cost undergo a financial screening and may receive assistance, she says, although that possibility is not advertised. As a nonprofit organization, she adds, the guesthouse " is constantly looking for donations" to provide the services it offers.

Woolery’s staff includes eight full-time equivalents — three housekeepers and five people who work the front desk, much like hotel receptionists, she notes. Their skills "go way beyond that," however, as they are called upon to do everything from help with third-party billing to keeping a triage eye on their guests, Woolery says.

"They can look at somebody and say, I’m going to call the physician and say that person doesn’t look well,’ or alert people if they see a young girl being treated for an eating disorder bingeing in the kitchen," she adds.

Help line spreads the word

Providence RN, a telephone help line for members of the system’s health system, helps disseminate information about the concierge service, Woolery says. As the nurses facilitate a connection between a patient and one of the specialty physicians at Providence, for example, they may offer the 800 number for the concierge service, she adds.

"Some of the rural hospitals that Providence owns are hundreds of miles away," Woolery notes. "We discovered that while Providence RN was taking care of finding the best physician for the patient, nothing was being done for the family regarding how to get there and where to stay. There was a need to tie the whole thing together."

Once patients and families find their way to the guesthouse or make use of the concierge service, she says, she is intent on offering the best customer service possible. "I try to run [the guesthouse] like a bed and breakfast. We’re much closer to the guest and offer services that a hotel could never do."

Woolery attends annual conferences held by the national organization for guest housing managers, she says, and the newsletter she writes twice or more a year has won first-place awards since its inception.

It would be hard to find someone who would be a better fit for her job. A former admitting manager who used to teach customer service for the Providence system, Woolery had parents who were in the restaurant and hotel business. Her daughter was born with many congenital defects that needed frequent medical attention. "I have spent her lifetime in hotel lobbies, in uncomfortable chairs, not getting to shower, and trying to stay alert to understand what the physicians are saying," she adds.

It was particularly gratifying, Woolery says, when she was complimented on the service at the guesthouse by a patient who had managed exclusive resorts throughout the United States. "He said to me, I can’t think of a thing you have missed here.’"

[Editor’s note: Cathryne Woolery can be reached at (503) 216-1575 or by e-mail at cwoolery@providence.org.]