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UPMC East: A hospitable hospital

| Friday, June 1, 2012, 8:47 p.m.

Seconds after you walk into the cafeteria of the soon-to-open UPMC East in Monroeville, you can smell the flatbread pizza baking in a brick oven.

Although not a huge oven by any means, its mere existence is sure-fire proof that food will play a key role in the $250 million hospital. How many brick ovens have you seen in a hospital?

The emphasis on food will extend to the experience of hospitalized patients. They'll be able to get fresh-fruit smoothies, made-to-order omelettes or a bowl of soup by calling a room-service hot line.

If UPMC East sounds a lot like a hotel, that's because the health system's management wants it to be that way. UPMC East is the first of the network's hospitals to have a hospitality services department. You read it right -- hospitality, a term usually reserved for cruise lines and the tourism industry.

The department's director, Randi Weir, is a pleasant, longtime UPMC employee who didn't mind when, in the middle of a nice conversation about pizzas and fresh sandwiches, I asked who pays for the smoothies, the smiling concierge and the built-in hair dryers in patients' rooms.

"People absolutely should question the cost," she told me. "It's one of the most expensive industries in our country, so it's important to ask if they are getting the value for their money that they're spending."

Not surprisingly, Weir said patients demand the amenities and good food. They say so when they fill out patient-satisfaction surveys that management carefully reviews. For some people, it turns out life-changing medicine isn't enough.

"We can give the best clinical care in the world but if we're not kind and caring and compassionate while we're doing it, people will notice, and they'll overlook all the great technical skills that we have just because we've not been nice to them," Weir said.

I've heard similar comments from nurses who work with patients.

A few weeks ago, I met with a group of them, and they shared stories about disgruntled patients who complained incessantly about cold hospital meals and "mystery meat." Even if the hospital saves someone's life, a bad meal or a grumpy nurse can be a deal breaker.

"No one worries about the price tag, and that's a big problem," one of the nurses told me.

Administrators and doctors at UPMC East told me during a media tour that their new hospital, though stylish and sparkling, isn't over the top. And those hair dryers? They cost a mere $28 each.

One thing will not change at UPMC East: those dreaded, see-through patient gowns.

"...Unfortunately, patient gowns are patient gowns," Weir said.

Just wait. Surely UPMC will come up with a fancy alternative.

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