The "town meeting" concept-which brings together various community members to resolve societal issues and form a consensus-is being used more frequently by hospitals in the ongoing healthcare reform debate.
Applying the concept to healthcare reform was brought into vogue by the Clinton administration, which has used hospitals as one of several sites for administration-sponsored town meetings on the subject.
But now hospitals are getting into the act on their own, sponsoring local town meetings or co-hosting televised town meetings in conjunction with other healthcare providers and representatives of the media.
Hospitals say the purpose for holding a town meeting is to educate and inform community residents about some of the ongoing issues surrounding healthcare reform, such as increased cost, universal coverage and quality patient care.
Hospitals that have either co-sponsored or hosted town meetings during the past year include:
Chesapeake (Va.) General Hospital, which conducted a televised town meeting in March featuring local hospital experts, members of the healthcare insurance industry and a representative from President Clinton's task force on healthcare reform.
Mercy Hospital in Detroit, which also hosted a town meeting in March on healthcare reform. It featured local hospital leaders and state representatives.
Harris Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, which hosted a town meeting in February featuring U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) criticizing the Clinton healthcare reform plan before 350 GOP activists.
Mount Sinai Hospital Medical Center in Chicago, which hosted a town meeting on healthcare reform in October. Speakers included U.S. Sens. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) and Paul Simon (D-Ill.).
Not surprisingly, these town meetings typically aren't small gatherings for local residents. More often than not, they're big-time events, aggressively promoted by the hospital and extensively covered by the media as news-a bonus that hasn't been ignored by hospital executives.
Hospital officials insist the benefits that result from a town meeting far outweigh any costs. The meetings offer a unique forum for providers, patients and politicians to discuss some of the ways to improve the nation's healthcare delivery system.
When Chesapeake General Hospital planned its marketing activities for fiscal 1994, one of its goals was to develop more community education programs, said Karen Winters, director of marketing. From this, the hospital decided to organize and sponsor a televised town meeting on healthcare reform.
"It sort of grew out of a brainstorming session," Ms. Winters said. "We met individually with (media) representatives, and everybody seemed to be interested."
The hospital was the main underwriter of the televised program, spending around $40,000 to promote and market the program in print and on television, she said. After finding a spot available on prime time, the hospital invited local members of the healthcare community as well as Walter Zelman, former California deputy state insurance commissioner and member of the Clinton administration's healthcare reform task force. Also on the task force was Chesapeake Hospital President Donald Buckley.
The result was the March 31 live airing of "Health Care ReForum," a 90-minute town meeting attended by nearly 200 people. It included commentary and questions from an audience that was just as concerned about finding and gaining access to quality healthcare facilities as it was about cost.
Reaction from the meeting was very positive, hospital executives said. For example, the White House has expressed interest in becoming involved in future town meetings. From the hospital's standpoint, it more than tripled the rate of return on its initial investment in the form of free advertising on television and newspapers.
The hospital also conducted follow-up marketing through the printing of a booklet entitled "A Simple Guide to Health Care Reform," which was distributed to audience members and viewers who called to request additional information.
The booklet, Ms. Winters asserts, is an objective breakdown of some of the issues on reform but doesn't represent the hospital's position.
Overall, the meeting was such a success that the hospital plans to hold a second one this fall.
"It was totally different than what I expected," Mr. Buckley said. "Many of the questions concerned the needs of the public, making me wonder whether maybe we're overlooking these needs as we get more wrapped up in healthcare reform."