This article appears in the March 2012 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.
They resemble deluxe hotel rooms, with luxurious décor in soft pastels, inviting paintings, richly upholstered chairs, and don't forget the iPod docking stations, the HDTVs, rollout beds, and room service. Only a blood pressure monitor seems out of place—although that may be hidden in a cabinet.
These are the attractions of birthing centers in hospitals that are seeking to capitalize on the demands of women who want a more personal, natural experience to greet their newborns, instead of the sterile environments that had been the hallmark of hospital deliveries for generations.
While some hospitals aren't interested in either expanding or building birthing centers, others are finding a niche market. Hospitals are not only competing against each other, but also with freestanding facilities. That's because of demographic blips. While birth rates are decreasing generally in the country, in some areas rates are on the rise.
The United States underwent a mini-baby boom for several years, but birth rates began to decline in 2008, and the decrease appears to be linked to the recession, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of state fertility and economic data. In 2010, the preliminary estimate of registered births in the United States was 4 million, some 3% less than in 2009, according to the National Vital Statistics Reports.
By investing in birthing centers, however, hospitals are not only targeting a client base for today or tomorrow, but for years ahead, says Julie Larson, MS, RN, director of nursing at the birthing center at the 425-staffed-bed Regions Hospital in St. Paul, MN.
By enhancing a life-changing experience now for families, hospitals may be able to capture future generations of family and friends. Indeed, expectant mothers are also among the industry's most sought-after patients. Pregnancy and childbirth were the reasons for one in five female hospitalizations in 2009, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
From small to large hospital systems, those that have expanded their programs attribute increases in birth-related admissions to changes in their birth centers. For instance, officials at the 25-staffed-bed Hudson (WI) Hospital & Clinics cited improvements to the birth center for helping to increase its births to 532 in 2010, an increase of 11% over the previous year, and 621 births in 2011, according to Joanne Donhowe, RN, birth center manager at the hospital.
Larson says that hospitals having "hotel-like" birth centers also is a way that they can better compete against freestanding facilities unaffiliated with hospital systems, which are often seen as less expensive and having more of a homey feel than hospitals. That's changing, Larson says. Not only are hospitals delivering the amenities, but they also can offer the comfort and security of knowing that in case of any problems in delivery, the hospital can handle that, too, she says.
Patient comfort is important, but so are clinical improvements to generate ROI for birth centers, says Ann Hendrich, RN, PhD, FAAN, vice president of clinical excellence operations and executive director of the patient safety organization for Ascension Health, based in St. Louis.