Are High Gas Prices a Blessing in Disguise?

Carrie Vaughan, for HealthLeaders Media, July 23, 2008

When it came time to buy a house, my husband and I were lured to the outskirts of town where houses offer bigger yards at more affordable prices than in the city. The 30- to 40-minute commute to work, while not ideal, seemed tolerable. But now, with gas prices hovering around $4 a gallon, our pocketbook is taking a hit. Fortunately, I can occasionally work from home, if needed—but the same cannot be said for hospital physicians, nurses, technicians, and housekeeping staff. They can't perform surgery, clean hospital rooms, or take patient x-rays from home.

It used to be that clinicians didn't mind traveling to work at their hospital of choice. Last year, I heard a community hospital CEO talk about their strategy to engage staff and eliminate low performers. They revamped their hiring practices and developed employee retention initiatives, and were so successful that 40% of their employees actually lived closer to another hospital but chose to work at their facility. Sounds great, but I wonder how long that will last if gas prices continue to rise.

There's no question that higher fuel costs are negatively impacting the home health industry. Patients who live in remote areas may soon be hard-pressed to find a healthcare provider willing to travel to them, and some home healthcare workers are considering leaving the industry altogether. Similarly, hospitals are facing higher medical supply costs. A box of 100 latex gloves cost about $2.70 a couple of years ago. Today, the cost is $3.50 to $3.80 (oil is used to manufacture the gloves).

So where's the silver lining? Your employees and suppliers are not the only ones struggling to cope with higher gas prices. Members of the community are struggling, as well. And many, like me, are opting to shop at stores closer to home. This goes for healthcare services, as well. Community hospitals may start seeing an influx of patients who used to travel to larger hospitals farther away now choosing to stay closer to home for routine procedures. This is a great opportunity for community hospitals to demonstrate the personalized service and high-quality care that they can offer.

But to keep these patients (many of whom may have private health insurance) coming back, your facility needs to make a good first impression. Healthcare is one of those services that people will pay more for or travel a few extra miles to, if they believe that they are getting higher quality service. So what kind of first impression will your hospital make?

While new technology is great, you don't necessarily need a 64-slice CT scanner or a computerized physician order entry system to leave a good first impression. Nor do you need the waterfall wall or healing garden. Yes, these amenities are nice, and patients will probably come away thinking that facility was "really cutting edge and beautiful." But there are some more affordable options to ensure that patients leave feeling like they had a high-quality encounter.

Make sure your hospital staff and clinicians treat patients with genuine compassion, not a fake sense of concern. Ensure that employees' appearance is professional and clean—that goes for the physical plant, as well. I know not every hospital has the budget to upgrade waiting rooms or the emergency room with a new interior, but some inexpensive fixes can have a big impact. Try rearranging the furniture in the waiting room, adding new artwork to the walls, or establishing an area for children. And above all, make sure it is clean. Remember, patients spend a lot of time in these areas and can often zero in on all of the flaws. Dirty walls or dusty window sills will speak volumes about your hospital and its commitment to safe, quality care.

Carrie Vaughan is editor of HealthLeaders Media Community and Rural Hospital Weekly. She can be reached at

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