Responding to a new generation of picky, pampered consumers, healthcare facilities across the country are beginning to look and feel a lot more like high-end resorts than general hospitals.
Yet not many of these trailblazing healthcare facilities have gone quite so far, in terms of both attitude and architecture, as Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital in Houston, which has taken alternative and complementary medicine to an entirely new level.
In February, the 554-bed hospital-part of one of the nation's largest secular not-for- profit healthcare systems-opened a luxury spa designed to satisfy the most discriminating consumer. For a price, patients-er, clients-can enjoy everything from pedicures and facials to body polishing and reflexology in a sumptuous setting reminiscent of a Ritz-Carlton resort.
Officials at Memorial Hermann Southwest, about 12 miles southwest of downtown Houston, say the wellness center/spa reflects a growing trend among many hospitals to fine-tune capital projects for a demanding new audience, creating another source of revenue while simultaneously adding a different dimension to the list of services.
"I see this whole concept quickly developing into a new trend," says G. Jerry Mueck, vice president of wellness and business development at Memorial Hermann Healthcare System. "As baby boomers age, they've become increasingly concerned about their health. They want complementary, alternative therapies. And we offer just about anything that anyone would want. For hospitals, it seems just natural to have a wellness center and spa to complement all the other services they provide."
Nine-hospital Memorial Hermann spent about $1.5 million on the lavish "Garden Spa," which occupies a section of a 85,000-square-foot wellness center that opened four years ago on the hospital's sprawling campus.
The $17 million wellness center, a joint venture with Houston Baptist University, includes traditional equipment like weight machines and treadmills as well as more "holistic" offerings, such as massage therapy and spiritual seminars. It also features a wellness institute with a $1 million computed tomography machine that scans for coronary artery disease, among other uses. So far, the wellness center has attracted about 3,800 public members, who pay a relatively modest monthly fee of $60, as well as about 1,200 HBU students. Nonmembers also can use the facility by paying daily fees.
Although there are as many as 600 traditional wellness centers at healthcare facilities across the nation, only a few hospitals operate a full-fledged spa with esoteric services like hydrotherapy, medicinal herb therapy, waxing, facials, body wraps, aroma steam and body polishing. They include 594-bed Hackensack (N.J.) University Medical Center; 168-bed Condell Medical Center, Libertyville, Ill.; and 242-bed Scottsdale (Ariz.) Healthcare-Shea, which opened its Essential Touch Women's Wellness Spa and Boutique off the main hospital lobby in May 2002.
Situated directly below the hospital's labor and delivery unit, the Scottsdale spa-part of a $29 million, 96,400-square foot women's center that includes comprehensive diagnostic facilities and a large conference center-is restricted to women except for a "men's day" once a month. While almost all of the spa services are provided to patients in their rooms, the 5,000-square-foot area, which includes a corporate fitness section, is a logical "continuum" of traditional hospital services that now is generating business from a growing list of nonhospital clients, says the spa's manager, Jennifer Munoz.
"This is a way to offer services to our hospital patients to make them a little more comfortable," she says. "One of the most important things we can do is teach people that relaxation is important ... to reduce stress."
Indeed, Munoz and Mueck say spas are more than frivolous amenities. The Scottsdale spa, Munoz says, is "breaking even" after slightly more than a year of operation. A hospital spokesman declined to provide any revenue figures, saying only that the spa averages about 550 procedures of various types each month. At Memorial Hermann Southwest, Mueck says, the spa is producing about $1,500 per day in revenue, a figure that is projected to increase to about $2,000 a day within three months and grow to about $3,000 per day by the end of the first year of operation.
The hospital's main wellness center, which houses the spa, features a comprehensive fitness area that includes pools, a gymnasium, indoor running track, racquetball courts and other fairly typical health club-style amenities. Its members pay $60 a month in fees. Mueck, who says the main wellness facility generates about $3 million a year in revenue, says he is hoping to add another 1,200 paying members of the public to the facility, which provides a steady flow of revenue by providing a feeder system to the spa.
Cary Wing, executive director of the Medical Fitness Association, a Richmond, Va.-based trade group affiliated with the American Hospital Association, says a recent questionnaire identified at least 29 hospital systems across the country that are developing feasibility studies for the more traditional health-and-fitness centers. The key to success, Wing says, is providing clinical programs along with services not available in commercial fitness facilities. "It's become one-stop shopping for a lot of people," Wing says.
Though Mueck and others believe the hospital-based spa business will soon expand across the country as an outgrowth of fitness centers, other experts are far more cautious or skeptical. When wellness centers first began popping up in hospitals about two decades ago, it took years for the concept to catch on because "people didn't understand them and they didn't expect them at hospitals," says Louis Cusimano, a San Antonio-based consultant whose company, Cusimano & Associates, provides consulting and management services for hospital-based fitness centers.
"I think the idea of medical spas will run the same course as the wellness centers," Cusimano says. "It's going to take some time. I think, for many hospitals, there's probably been some hesitation-they're probably nervous about publicizing what might be considered a `glamour business' when everyone is screaming about the high cost of healthcare. In order for the hospitals to get over that hump, they need to integrate more of the clinical side into the spa services in a way that it makes sense-at least in the public's perception."