By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer
In the nonstop battle for baby bucks among Tristate hospitals, Christ Hospital on Wednesday unveiled a $5 million renovation of its birthing center.
The Mount Auburn hospital, a member of the Health Alliance of Greater Cincinnati, spent the past year improving its special care nursery, expanding its triage area, converting its delivery areas into all-private suites and upgrading its rooms for Caesarean deliveries.
The area's second-busiest maternity unit - which delivers about 3,800 babies a year - now offers all sorts of amenities.
All 50 rooms have fresh decor, new furniture and multijet showers for comfort.
Some rooms offer hydrotherapy birthing suites for women who prefer labor in water. Other rooms are designed according to feng shui, an ancient Chinese discipline believed to promote positive energies and good fortune through how furnishings are placed.
"Feng shui is all the rage right now," said Victor DiPilla, interim senior vice president of the Health Alliance.
And when all the labor is done, proud parents can post baby pictures on a hospital Website for far-flung friends and family to enjoy.
If all that sounds like marketing hype - that's the point.
"Women seek health care much more frequently than men. So they to a certain extent drive the market," said Dr. Elbert Nelson, medical director of the obstetrics unit.
In theory, the woman who has a positive childbirth experience will be more likely to send family members back to the hospital for other types of care, he said.
The renovation happened even though the Health Alliance faces a grim financial forecast.
In the next few years, if nothing changes, the Health Alliance projects that declining government reimbursement rates will cause operating revenues to plummet $60 million from a positive peak of $20 million in 2004 to a $40 million loss in 2006.
The Health Alliance is not planning layoffs, but officials are planning to cut costs by delaying some new medical technology, selling off portions of its system and contracting out more services.
The birthing center improvements are part of efforts to increase revenue by improving certain services. Other growth plans include opening a new cardiac care tower this year at Christ Hospital, lobbying legislators to avoid cuts, and pushing for better rates from private insurers.
When it comes to maternity services, some spending is needed just to keep up with the competition, DiPilla said.
The Tristate has 19 hospitals that deliver babies - and competition among them often is ferocious.
Many of Christ Hospital's competitors have attracted women with home-like decor, private rooms, Jacuzzis and open attitudes toward alternative childbirth methods.
In 1999, the area's biggest maternity service - Good Samaritan Hospital - pumped $5.2 million into renovations.
To James Sandmann, a health care consultant and retired president of the health-planning agency CORVA, the competition over maternity services reflects a need for better community planning.
"Whether it's maternity services or open-heart services, the whole health care system needs re-examination," Sandmann said.
Whether the Tristate has all the maternity services it needs or not, Dale Bradford, a health care consultant with the Scheller Bradford Group, can't say.
"I don't have a problem with Christ Hospital, or anybody else, doing something like this," Bradford said. "I just say if you end up over-bedded, don't come back saying we need employers to kick in more money."
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