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Hospitals woo patients with free parking, other perks

Marketing key as more take role in picking provider

WASHINGTON - Credit card companies, airlines, and hotels all have customer loyalty programs. Maybe it was only a matter of time before hospitals got in on the act.

A growing number of hospitals are seeking to attract new patients and keep existing ones by offering them an array of perks, including free parking, gift shop discounts, wellness seminars, and health screenings. Some of the most popular programs are social mixers that have nothing to do with health care - such as trips to casinos.

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It is all part of a changing competitive environment in which hospitals market themselves directly to patients, who have begun to take a much more active role in choosing their health care providers - and are on the hook for a greater share of the costs.

Before managed care, hospitals focused more on appealing to physicians with new and advanced medical technologies, experts say. Physicians, it was thought, would bring in the patients.

Changes in health care policies are giving hospitals added incentive to develop relationships with patients. Under the 2010 health care overhaul, hospitals with higher than expected 30-day readmission rates for heart attack, heart failure, and pneumonia will face financial penalties starting this year.

The number of conditions subject to penalty will be expanded in subsequent years, and hospitals can help themselves by working with patients before they land in the hospital with an acute problem.

“Hospitals will have an expanding share of risk in their patient populations going forward,’’ says Tony Paquin, chief executive of Paquin Healthcare, an Orlando consulting and technology firm that has worked with more than 150 hospitals to develop loyalty programs. “Health care providers are just starting to figure out that they need to develop patient relationships if they’re going to improve their health long term.’’

Botsford Hospital in Farmington Hills, Mich., started issuing free “Very Important Patient’’ cards in 2010. The program got its start as a referral service to link potential patients with Botsford doctors.

The cards entitle VIP members to free parking and a 10 percent discount on nonprescription drugs at the outpatient pharmacy and the gift shop, says Lynn Anderson, marketing and public relations manager at the 330-bed hospital in the Detroit suburb. VIP members can also get discounts at restaurants and service establishments such as an oil-change garage.

The program, which has more than 900 members, is open to anyone in the community. In addition to financial perks, it offers regular health education seminars on such topics as hip replacements, back problems, and acid-reflux disease, Anderson said.

“This is a way to get a mailing list and send them information,’’ she says. “In this day and age, with so much competition, you need to make a connection with patients.’’ There are seven other hospitals that compete with Botsford in its primary target market in the northern and western Detroit suburbs.

Luanne Dunigan, a 78-year-old retired nurse, signed up for Botsford’s VIP program after receiving a letter from the hospital. Dunigan had never been a patient at Botsford Hospital, but she told her grandson to take her to the emergency department there twice recently, once when she was having trouble swallowing and again when she had chest pain. The VIP program was a factor in her decision, she says, and she was pleased with the care she received. “It was the best hospitalization I ever had.’’

This article was produced through a collaboration between the Washington Post and Kaiser Health News. KHN, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy organization.
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