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Physician relations professionals who are looking for ways to help their hospitals tower over the competition can take a lesson from St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston: When building a new facility, keep physicians in mind.
For example, after deciding to redefine their outpatient strategy to recruit physicians and increase patient volume, the 949-bed facility opened its Medical Tower Ambulatory Care Center, one of the largest professional medical office buildings in the United States.
Net outpatient revenues tripled in the first five years after the $20 million center’s opening in 1990, thus reaching its seven-year payback goal ahead of schedule, says Karen M. Rose, MBA, RN, vice president of ambulatory and clinical services.
The 270 physicians housed in the 27-floor tower enjoy amenities such as dedicated physicians parking, an automotive detail shop, private elevators, food service, and a lounge. There’s also a bank, pharmacy, jeweler, deli, optical shop, and airline ticket counter.
The tower’s physicians provide about 50% of the clinic’s business, says Rose. One-third of them were recruited to the new facility.
"Before we moved into the new building, we were basically an inpatient facility that was attempting outpatient care in a very inconvenient environment," Rose explains. "So new freestanding clinics were siphoning off business."
St. Luke’s was surrounded by other health care systems, making parking a nightmare, she points out.
So Rose and a team of architects, engineers, and hospital staff knew they had to create a competitive edge for the hospital by catering to both customer groups: physicians and patients.
"While we were planning the building, we constantly asked ourselves, What’s best for physicians and patients? Why would they want to come here if they could go somewhere else?’" Rose says.
"The first advantage the tower gave us was that we were able to recruit physicians from other hospitals to our medical office building because of the amenities," she says.
For example, after a physician parks his or her car in the three underground levels dedicated to physicians’ parking and goes to the office, a worker from the detail shop picks up the car keys, then cleans and returns the car.
Physicians also have a private elevator to transport them to and from the three floors on the ambulatory clinic without going through the public areas. "They can assess their locker room directly," Rose says.
The elevator also lets physicians off at the second floor so they can conveniently cross the skybridge to the hospital, she adds.
Although physicians first opposed another element of the building’s design a shared staff lounge they now say they enjoy it.
"The planning team thought one lounge for all staff levels would foster teamwork and time-savings," she says. "We also have such a high volume of same-day surgeries and room turnaround, we knew it would be easier if all the staff were in one place."
So Rose bargained with the physicians by asking them to try it for one year, after which a vote would be taken, and if they didn’t like it, a renovation would create separate lounges. Meanwhile, she sweetened the deal by hiring a food service employee from the hospital to make sure physicians get their favorite breakfast and lunch in the lounge. "She knows their dietary habits. So a surgeon can walk into the lounge and [the food service employee] says, I’ll have your bagel and coffee in two minutes,’" Rose says. "It’s a simple thing, but it encourages them to be on time [for surgeries.]"
It worked, too. After one year, the physicians voted to continue sharing the lounge.
The planning team knew that physicians who can provide quick and convenient treatment for patients will continue to receive a high number of referrals. So the team gave equal thought to patient amenities such as parking, speedy pre-op admission and testing, and an easy-to-follow floor plan.
"Outpatients like it because they never have to come into the medical center and deal with its parking hassles," she explains. "They can pull their care right into the tower from two main thoroughfares in the city, use valet parking, see their doctor on one floor, then come down to our center to have their test or procedures, and pick up their prescription in the lobby."
The building’s patient-focused design also plays a critical role in expediting patients through the system, Rose emphasizes.
"All elevators stop automatically at the 10th floor. No matter which elevator you take, when the doors open, there is only one way to walk straight into the receptionists area," she says.
The receptionist then directs patients to the proper queue, one of eight partitioned booths to the back and on either side of the receptionists desk.
This area, which looks more like a bank than a hospital, allows registration staff to see how many patients are waiting. "It lets them know if they need to work faster or if there is someone in line who is having difficulty waiting that they need to go ahead and get in," she says.
Physicians are not only concerned about how their patients are treated before surgery but also afterward. That’s why the team planned natural lighting in the post-op unit. "The glass sides of the building on the ninth floor create an open and warm environment an atmosphere of healing, not the closed-in feeling of a hospital," Rose says.
Physicians also like the fact that their celebrity patients who wish to remain anonymous, or those who don’t wish to be seen after aesthetic surgery may also use the physician elevator for privacy.
"Customer service is the key," says Rose. "You have to know who your customers are and what is important to them."