Hospitals' latest perk: Running your errands
■ Concierge services for doctors, nurses and other staff are seen as a way to boost employee satisfaction and productivity.
Beholden to the hectic demands of raising a family and being director of the nephrology fellowship program at Vanderbilt University Medical School in Nashville, Tenn., Julia Lewis, MD, doesn't have much time for life's smaller tasks.
So when Dr. Lewis needed to find a crib for a young houseguest, she took advantage of a relatively new perk for employees at the university's medical center. She used its concierge service -- known as the Vanderbilt Valet -- to make the arrangements for her.
"I'm very busy as a faculty member. When I'm not being a faculty member, I want to be available to my children and my husband for things that are meaningful to us," Dr. Lewis said. "I have a lot more ability to do that when I can rely on the valet service to find people to do things for me."
Vanderbilt is among a growing group of hospitals nationwide that have begun offering concierge services to physicians, nurses and other workers. The services save employees time by taking care of personal chores such as wrapping gifts, dropping off dry cleaning, shopping for groceries or coordinating car repairs. And the hospitals can use the services to recruit and retain employees by touting them as a luxurious perquisite.
Concierge services have been offered in some corporate sectors for more than a decade. Experts say they only recently have begun to catch on in health care as work-force shortages have sharpened competition for staff.
"There's more competition for physicians in America than ever. Doctors are looking to go where the grass is greener, and part of that is asking what are the perks and benefits of working at this hospital," said Kurt Mosley, vice president for business development for The MHA Group, a Dallas-based health care staffing firm.
Mostly a recent trend
The trend began in hospitals in the last three to five years, said Sara-ann Kasner, president of the Minneapolis-based National Concierge Assn., a group of companies who provide such services. She and others said concierge services have caught on quickly in part because the benefits are most apparent in industries where employees are pressed for time.
"When it comes to health care in particular, it's an immediate and larger impact because it's a 24/7 environment," said Marsha McVicker, chief executive of Errand Solutions LLC, a Chicago concierge firm. "When you have individuals who are working second and third shifts, having a service like ours kind of takes the pressure off for them to focus on patients."
Central DuPage Hospital, in Winfield, Ill., began offering concierge services to its employees in October 2004 as a means of improving the quality of their workdays. "We wanted to provide them with services that would make their days less stressful and free up some of their time," said Eileen Belokin, director for volunteer and guest services at the hospital.
She said the hospital also recognized the service's potential to help in recruiting and retention efforts. "There are some key positions in health care where there are shortages, and this helps differentiate us. If all other things were equal, this might be the deal breaker," she said.
The hospital contracts with Errand Solutions to manage the service, which gets nearly 1,000 requests per month. About 40% of the staff uses it. They have requested everything from car washes to information about how to implode a swimming pool.
The service will search the Internet, make scheduling arrangements, run errands or do just about whatever it takes to fulfill each request. Employees do not pay for the service but do pay the cost of the actual benefit, such as paying for the groceries that the concierge fetched.
Belokin said physicians who use the service aren't violating Stark law or other rules limiting what perks they can receive because they are not receiving any special payments.
"They're not getting free car washes or free oil changes or whatever. They're paying retail just as everybody else does," she said. "They're not benefiting in any way over and above what anyone else does."
But MHA Group's Mosley said physicians might want to double-check with an attorney before using such services to make sure they are not running afoul of any laws.
Some hospitals have addressed legal concerns in part by making the benefit available free only to physician employees, while making referring physicians at the hospital pay extra if they want to use it.
Vanderbilt University Medical Center consulted attorneys before rolling out its concierge services to ensure that it would not be seen as an illegal inducement, said Charlotte Chaney, assistant hospital director.
It is available only to employees, but most physicians there are employed and have the same access to the service as nurses and others. In all, it is offered to nearly 11,000 people.
The service can be a significant investment. Vanderbilt has spent about $200,000 on the program, which has been operating for about a year.
Though difficult to quantify, Chaney said the investment appears to be paying off in employee retention, recruitment and higher productivity.
"It's unusual in health care to offer it because health care runs on such a tight budget. But at the same time, we think it's smart to do it," she said.
Presbyterian/St. Luke's Medical Center in Denver believes its concierge services program gave it an edge in recruiting nurses. Four years ago, the hospital had 100 unfilled nursing positions. After launching its program nearly a year ago, a recent count showed 35 nursing vacancies.
"We can't directly draw the line from one to the other, but we know it plays a part," said Stephanie Lewis, a spokeswoman for the hospital.
Lewis declined to say exactly how much the program has cost, though it's more than $100,000.
At Vanderbilt, Dr. Julia Lewis said the service has helped increase her loyalty to her employer as well as increasing her productivity on the job.
"It helps me have more time to get more work done. I don't have to stop work to drive some place with my car and drop it off and figure out how I'm going to get me back to Vanderbilt. So that saves me say an hour of time," she said. "I can do a lot in an hour."