TAMPA — A concierge welcomes guests at a marble reception desk overlooking a soothing waterfall. Fresh apples, locally roasted coffee and pitchers of water with lemon slices beckon.
While waiting for appointments, women can browse a menu of services featuring massage therapy, meditation and beauty consultations. They are offered robes made by the vendor that supplies the Ritz-Carlton.
"I call it the spa," said 57-year-old Connie Haile, who has been coming here for three years.
The name etched in frosted glass: Center for Women's Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center.
"When you come into a clinic, most of the time you feel like an animal. This makes you feel special," said Haile, a breast cancer patient from the Panhandle, praising the staff. "I've seen them come out and just check, 'Are you okay?' "
New research is finding that amenities — from friendly employees and soothing colors to big-screen TVs and gardens — matter deeply to consumers deciding where to seek hospital care.
Whether these niceties actually improve medical outcomes isn't so clear. Evidence is stronger, for instance, that private rooms limit infection than that a swank lobby promotes well-being.
But research does show many patients care more about extras than quality of care — perhaps because it's a lot easier to judge one's surroundings than it is to know how good the medicine is.
No wonder Tampa Bay's new and freshly renovated hospital units are awash in sage and taupe hues, boasting Internet access and comfortable lounges. The area's newest, St. Joseph's Hospital-North, gives patients a leather-bound room service menu from its Twigs Cafe — please, don't call it a cafeteria — and encourages those who can go outside to enjoy nature in its four healing gardens.
Many high-end touches can be costly and could become controversial at a time when the nation is debating ways to deal with out-of-control health care spending. At local hospitals, where upgrades mostly have accompanied planned renovations and older corridors remain as bland as ever, officials say the changes are less about luxury than rethinking patient care in an era when consumers have more choices and are demanding better.
In the past, "we sort of had this attitude, 'Well, you're lucky to be here, so you can bloody well wait to be called,' " said Dr. Johnathan Lancaster, director of Moffitt's women's oncology center. More recently, he said, Moffitt started taking inspiration from the kind of service patients could expect at salons, stores and hotels.
"Maybe we can't get to a Ritz-Carlton because of what we do," he added. "But we should be able to make it like a Hyatt."
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Among hospitals in the Los Angeles area that upgraded to top-tier amenities, researchers found that demand for services increased, on average by 39 percent.
That study analyzed the preferences of Medicare patients with pneumonia, a condition that, while serious, usually allows time for patients to decide where to go for care.
But researchers say even heart attack patients seem to care about hospital amenities, although less so.
"Why wouldn't we expect patients to care about the broader experience?" said John Romley, one of the study authors. "This is a very consumer-oriented culture. It would almost be shocking if patients didn't care about some of these things."
Romley said the expense of adding high-end features is ripe for debate. Clearly, patients enjoy some softer touches, but there's no clear consensus on how much they're worth in terms of health and money.
Plus, patients might not be so impressed by frills if they had better ways to judge care — increasingly a focus of federal assessment efforts.
The University of Southern California professor also recently co-wrote a New England Journal of Medicine article on the growing importance of hospital amenities. He said hospitals once marketed to physicians, emphasizing their latest high-tech equipment, thinking the patients would follow. But in recent years, hospitals have begun marketing directly to consumers, stressing amenities.
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Consider the Tampa General Hospital advertising campaign surrounding the May 2008 opening of a new women's center.
"I had a beautiful room for my delivery that really didn't feel like a hospital. It even had a water view," a new mother said in the ad.
A camera panned from the iridescent blue water outside into a spacious suite with medical equipment hidden behind wood cabinets.
"My family joked that we checked into a hotel," the woman said, "not a hospital."
Jean Mayer, senior vice president of strategic services, said the focus of the design was not amenities but a healing environment that's appealing to patients.
"Certainly, things like private rooms and comfortable areas for families, those could certainly go into the decisionmaking process."
In 2007, when St. Petersburg's Bayfront Medical Center opened its new heart center, Internet access was the new big deal. So along with a contemporary color palette, tasteful furniture, artwork and flat-screen televisions, it added WiFi to its recovery rooms.
The thinking: The ability to fire up your laptop after a procedure could be a marketing edge for corporate executives in their 50s and 60s, a prime group for cardiac care.
Scott Sinigalliano, Bayfront's director of cardiovascular services, believes every detail makes an impression. "All this time and energy on the presentation of the surrounding environment, it sort of inspires confidence in the quality of the clinical care," he said.
The smallest detail can mean a lot, noted Lynne Hildreth, department administrator for women's oncology at Moffitt. Even if you're no expert in cancer care, she said, "you can appreciate the difference between Folger's and a gourmet coffee."
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A palm-lined waterfall greets visitors to St. Joseph's-North, a $225-million, year-old hospital in Lutz. The "garden lobby" boasts a sun-filled atrium. Promotional materials note that "a swanky lobby with modern furnishings and decor resembles a luxury hotel fashioned with natural materials of wood, slate, rock and water."
But chief operating officer Paula McGuiness says that some of the hospital's amenities are considered good medical practice. Its 108 rooms are all private, helping to control the spread of infection.
She says there is some evidence supporting "healing" elements, such as the hospital's four gardens.
McGuiness acknowledges that certain elements of the amenities in patient rooms — like the large-screen televisions that offer Internet access and video games — aren't expected to change outcomes.
Still, the touches and the newness have an undeniable appeal.
The hospital drew patients from as far away as Jacksonville during its opening week — despite the fact that it is not a specialty institution like Moffitt. On its first day, a man from Clearwater arrived in the emergency room.
"I'm thinking, how urgent can this be, if you've had to drive from Clearwater," said McGuiness with a laugh.
"The amenities in this case pique people's interest. They want to be the first, or say they've been here."
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3322. For more health news, visit tampabay.com/health.