Medical wellness centers help hospitals stay competitive

Creating a medical wellness center not only addresses population health, but it also can help a hospital gain a competitive edge, experts said at today's American College of Healthcare Executives' annual congress in Chicago.

With quality reporting measures under the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services including population health measures, such as weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose, wellness is becoming a core competency, Robert Coleman, principal of Enwright Wellness in Greenville, S.C., said at the session, "Medical Wellness: A Strategy for Thriving in the Era of Accountable Care."

It's not just about measuring, but improving population health, Coleman said.

At Medical Center Health System (MCHS) in Odessa, Texas, creating its center for health and wellness proved to be effective. In just the first year alone, MCHS gained 1,836 members to its medically integrated facility and expects 2,500 members by the end of year two--not to mention the pleasant surprise of nearly $200,000 in first-year revenue rather than the expected losses.

Creating a facility centered on wellness came from the health system's mission for broadening its healthcare reach rather than being a "sick-care institution," MCHS Associate Administrator Carol Durham said. The wellness center would move the hospital beyond acute care and create a more meaningful impact on the community, she said.

Durham cited major health challenges in her community, such as tobacco use, obesity and one of the worst teen pregnancy rates in the country. The wellness center focuses on prevention, improved patient access to diagnostic and therapeutic outpatient services, increased primary and specialty physician space, as well as diversified revenue through retail components. The wellness center isn't just a gym, Durham said. It does offer fitness equipment, but it adds the support and resources for that group of people who wouldn't normally exercise on their own. In addition to medical fitness, the center offers physical and occupational therapy, sports medicine services, cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation and a diabetes center that includes a healthy cooking kitchen, among other things.

Located in a residential, affluent neighborhood, the wellness center follows one of the first rules of real estate--location, location, location. The wellness center deliberately is situated where people lived with easy traffic flow and a visible location, Durham said.

Although the MCHS officially decided not to go the accountable care organization route, it did decide to take ACO components--an experiment tested on hospital employees. There are 215 hospital employees who are members of the wellness center, although Durham said she hopes that number will grow. With employees as the "guinea pigs," the hospital offers financial incentives for member employees who go to the center twice a week or eight times a month.

Durham said hospitals can make revenue even in the first year, if carried out appropriately. "If you do it right, you can have a sustainable model for medical wellness," she said.

At the end of year one, the wellness center showed a 57 percent increase in patients and a 38 percent increase in visits in cardiac rehab services. In addition, the diabetes center had a 10 percent increase in billable services.

 Although it had budgeted for a $392,318 loss, MCHS instead made $190,483 from the wellness center in its first year.

Durham noted that the model worked for her facility, due in part to a thriving local oil and energy economy. However, the early financial successes in year one are unusual, said Mark Nadel, managing director and partner of Healthplex Associates in Media, Pa., and a self-described "recovering hospital CEO."

But no matter how health reform will shake out, wellness will be a piece of it, Nadel said.

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