Marketing Is a Big Part of the Operation : Health: South Bay hospitals hope to attract more clients by offering hotel-style amenities such as gourmet food, fresh flowers and express check-in.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The fresh-cut flowers arrive at check-in. The menus feature chicken crepes and broiled cod Provencal.

Such are the amenities at Redondo Beach's South Bay Hospital, which has hired a gourmet chef and adopted the hotel-style slogan, "We treat you well."

In the high-stakes competition among health-care providers, some area hospitals have stepped up their marketing techniques in an effort to woo patients and build consumer loyalty.

They are touting not only their physicians and X-ray equipment, but the quality of non-medical features such as "made-from-scratch" food, newly decorated rooms and express check-in.

Patients are treated to showings of first-run movies at Torrance Memorial Medical Center and San Pedro Peninsula Hospital. Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital has begun offering free coffee and tea in its cafeteria to make guests feel more comfortable. And many hospitals have been cultivating community ties by launching newsletters or promoting speakers' bureaus.

"Hospitals are in life-and-death struggles to retain the patients they have and try to get new ones," said David Langness, a spokesman for the Hospital Council of Southern California, an association of 235 public and private hospitals.

To add to the traditional hospital's monetary woes, the length of hospital stays is shrinking and outpatient services are growing in popularity.

Although some patients still rely on their doctors to choose a hospital, more and more people are making those choices themselves.

"They might have a choice between two or three hospitals," said Lori Aldrete, vice president for public affairs at the California Assn. of Hospitals and Health Systems. "If they have an image in their mind that they'll be pampered more at one hospital than another, that could affect their decision."

The shift toward health-maintenance and preferred-provider organizations has intensified the contest. Hospitals are competing to be included in those networks, said Glenn Melnick, associate professor at the UCLA School of Public Health and resident consultant at RAND in Santa Monica. And one way hospitals can reach those networks is by building loyalty among area residents through better service and increased visibility.

"In some ways, I view this as very positive," Melnick said, "because, for a long time, hospitals were not seen as being particularly responsible to the people side."

But during the past decade, more hospitals have begun treating patients as customers--and in the process may sound more like vacation resorts than the site of your gallbladder surgery.

One area hospital that is not adopting such hotel-style amenities is Harbor/UCLA Medical Center, the major public hospital serving the South Bay.

"We're in a totally different arena," said Cynthia Moore, assistant hospital administrator at the 553-bed facility in Torrance. While other hospitals compete for insured patients, only about 3.5% of the Harbor/UCLA patients have private insurance.

"We don't have the money to successfully market for that population. . . . In many cases, we're a patient's last resort," Moore said. "Our emphasis is on quality health care."

At South Bay Hospital, the "We Treat You Well" campaign follows a difficult period for the facility, which lost a key medical services contract in 1989 and saw occupancy drop. State figures show that in 1990, the latest period for which data is available, the hospital had a bed occupancy rate of 25.6%, compared to the 51.6% rate for all hospitals in Los Angeles County. Two major competitors reported higher occupancy rates--67.5% at Torrance Memorial and 65.4% at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance.

Occupancy at South Bay Hospital has since climbed back to the county average, in part because it has added new services such as a skilled-nursing unit, public relations director Lorri Weber said.

When a 1990 survey determined some residents were unfamiliar with the hospital's services, officials decided to step up their outreach efforts, said Weber, who acknowledges that its two Torrance competitors had been more aggressive earlier, "just letting people know about their programs."

A recent South Bay Hospital advertisement featured a photograph not of a hard-working physician or a life-saving nurse, but of a smiling woman arranging a bouquet of flowers.

"We perform this delicate operation every day," read the caption, promoting the 5-year-old policy of delivering fresh flowers to each patient.

Weber said the advertisements "are primarily service-oriented, to show that we're a warm, caring environment, and we really care about the people. That patients are really our guests."

The cost of such amenities is not passed along to patients, Weber said.

"It's an investment (that) we think in the long run will pay off," she said. The 208-bed hospital is owned by the public South Bay Hospital District and leased to a for-profit firm, American Medical International Inc.

South Bay Hospital has hired a former Sheraton Corp. chef and boasts that more than 80% of its food is prepared from scratch.

Meanwhile, San Pedro Peninsula Hospital has contracted food services with Marriott Corp. since 1988 and touts its chef as award-winning. And Torrance Memorial recently remodeled its kitchen to allow for more so-called "scratch cooking."

Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood, meanwhile, provides free candlelight dinners for new mothers and fathers in its maternity unit.

Some hospitals, such as Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital, have added a staff position known as a patient services representative--someone who can fetch a toy for a child or answer questions about billing procedures.

The management staff at Hawthorne Hospital participate in a 1 1/2-year-old program in which they take turns working shifts as a patient representative.

"You visit a patient to make sure that things are going OK, like getting them a newspaper," said Sheri Spurney, marketing director at the 73-bed hospital, which also sends flowers to its patients.

Amid all the talk of cuisine and patient relations, hospital officials emphasize they cannot ignore medical services.

"The flowers are fine; the food is fine. But you want to make sure that you've got state-of-the-art equipment and the best physicians," said Laurie Lundberg, director of public relations at Torrance Memorial, a 340-bed nonprofit private community hospital. And hospitals are working harder to promote those services.

South Bay Hospital is launching a quarterly newsletter that will be mailed to nearly 87,000 South Bay homes. The first issue leads with a story about the hospital's maternity program.

At least two other area hospitals started newsletters in the past three years. The 5-year-old Torrance Memorial magazine recently carried stories about services such as "express registration," which claims some pre-admitted patients--those whose doctors have already completed most of the hospital's paperwork--can register in 1.6 minutes.

Many hospitals are reaching beyond patient care techniques to establish contacts with area residents who may never have walked through the hospital's doors.

Little Company of Mary Hospital has promoted its speakers bureau, which offers health experts to speak to community groups.

"When people think about hospital marketing, they think, 'Oh, they just want to get more patients at (their) hospital," said Pamela Solomon, Little Company's director of marketing.

On the contrary, she said, "We want to prevent people from getting sick."

Torrance Memorial offers a special "Torrance Loves Children," or TLC program, that offers care for children suffering from mild illnesses such as colds. The 5-year-old program is popular among working parents who cannot stay home with their sick offspring, hospital officials say. Parents preregister and pay $4 an hour for the care.

The program serves an average of 29 children a week, Lundberg said.

The boom in outreach programs cultivates name recognition among residents who may later need to seek out a hospital, experts say.

"Hospitals need to differentiate themselves to the patient," said Ronald Goodstein, assistant professor of marketing at the John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA.

Because mothers make the decision about medical care in many families, they have become "the target market," said Goodstein, who teaches marketing to hospital administrators. Indeed, American Demographics magazine reported in 1987 that, six out of 10 times, it is the woman who chooses what hospital a relative or loved one will use.

While it is too early to say exactly how effective these new services will be over the long term, some experts warn that hotel-type amenities should not be added simply for cosmetic appeal.

The flower bouquets will be effective only if they are a true indication of how much hospitals care about their patients, Goodstein said.

"My only caution would be, make sure you're doing that all the way through," Goodstein said.

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