The Physical Innovation of Hotels in Medical Tourism

With growth of medical tourism projected to skyrocket in the next decade, now is the time for hotel properties to consider their interest in serving this special type of guest. There are many approaches and considerations that can influence how a particular hotel may approach serving this clientele.

Peter Greenberg, the travel editor for NBC’s Today Show, has dubbed them “postoperative hotels” – facilities in which their physical design has considered the special needs of the recovering medical tourist. If services, as we considered in the last issue, are key to a hotel’s accommodation of the medical traveler, in some cases so are the physical layouts of the hotel property.

This is a harder topic to consider, as so many of the considerations of appropriate accommodations relate to the type of medical treatment recently provided to the guest.  Surely the guest who just had heart surgery in Mumbai may have a different set of needs than the dental patient in Costa Rica, who differs from the guest recovering from cosmetic surgery in Mexico.  

The dental patient may have little need for specialized accommodations; the cosmetic surgery guest may place a premium on privacy; the heart patient may require several considerations to accommodate recuperation from such a major procedure.  

No one sort of accommodation is ideal for all medical travelers; the purpose of this article is not to describe the perfect facility for the medical tourist, but rather to introduce some of the many considerations a property may make to better accommodate its medical guests.

These considerations start with the arrival to the property. The Woodmark Hotel in Seattle pioneered the provision of a private entrance to the hotel and an elevator serving only medical travelers, and this can now be found at several other properties serving the medical tourist.  

Such an entrance prevents any embarrassment a bandaged or wheelchair bound guest may feel among other hotel guests, as well as expediting the check-in process so as not to tax limited strength.

Other hotels have offered medical guests specialized floors which may offer a variety of support facilities such as a concierge lounge or solarium, giving guests a pleasant alternative to staying in their rooms while not requiring them to walk long distances.  In some cases, meals are also served in this lounge area.

Serenity Aftercare Facility in Santa Monica provides medical guests a rooftop rose garden, offering a peaceful and restful area. A study from the University of California at Berkeley reports 95% of recuperating guests with access to such outdoor, nature settings report therapeutic benefit from their presence.  Such facilities should have some seating in a shaded area as those recovering from cosmetic surgery frequently must stay out of the sun to avoid darkening of scar tissue.

Lacking either dedicated floors or garden settings, a property may still provide some secluded areas appealing to medical tourists not yet ready to fully mix with the leisure travel guests, such as cabanas or portico seating.  Reducing hindrances to getting around the property needs to be a consideration for facilities not previously prepared to accommodate wheelchairs or other mobility assistance equipment.

In the event that elevators are not present in the hotel, it may be necessary to use the first floor rooms for those with such needs.  While ramps are convenient for wheelchairs, for individuals with reduced balance, stairs may be easier to navigate than ramps, so the provision of both is recommended for small changes in elevation.

Getting around off-property is also being addressed by some hotels, which are operating transportation for guests to and from medical facilities.  This valuable service is also one of the more costly additions rather commonly reported by those facilities seeking to serve the medical traveler.

Just as important are several guest room modifications that may be advisable depending upon the nature of the patient’s recovery.  Most of these need not be high-cost modifications, nor transform the room into a “medical” look.  Equally important, they may be phased in over time – service to the medical tourist doesn’t require a complete facility redo in order to meet some of their needs.

Decisions may be made regarding modifications by considering two basic factors: the recovering medical tourist is

1) more likely to spend a greater amount of time in the room than the average guest, so décor and utility details may be more critical to the comfort of their stay; and

2) more likely to have reduced amounts of energy and perhaps some mobility limitations, so convenience factors are especially important.

For instance, a universal remote at bedside allows guests to open and close curtains, operate the television/DVD player, adjust room lighting, and can provide an emergency button that calls for help if needed. More elaborate systems can also accommodate remote thermostat adjustment.  

Ambient sounds, such as the sound of ocean waves, surf, rain, or music, have been shown to improve sleep in post-operative individuals, and might also be included as an audio-only television channel.  When possible, carpet and drapes are preferred to tile or window shutters, as they can reduce outside sound from 70 to 90 percent.

The availability of wireless Internet makes use of the laptop from the bed possible, and nightstand-height electrical outlets allow for easy connection.  If only one telephone is available in the room, it is recommended it be on the nightstand so it is accessible from the bed.

Some facilities have added an adjustable bed; most have reported that a separate bed for a traveling partner is a welcome arrangement.  Although unusual for hotels, a bed with a footboard allows a handle for stability as the guest walks around the room.  

It also can be used to hold the blanket or duvet to relieve pressure on the feet.  A round table removes sharp corners to prevent bruising, but it needs to have a stable base that will support a person who leans on its edge.

If the likelihood is that the guest may have limited mobility or require the use of a wheelchair, the furnishings need to provide adequate maneuverable space, which may be improved by raising desktops to allow the wheelchair to fit underneath the table apron and between its legs.  

Adjustable shelf height in closets also allows quick, easy conversion for a person in a wheelchair to use them.  (The Americans with Disabilities Act provides a detailed synopsis of how construction can accommodate wheelchairs.  While this legislation applies only to United States properties, its specifications can provide a handy reference for designing for mobility-impaired.  Details are at: http://www.ada.gov/stdspdf.htm)

Bathrooms can be made medical guest-friendly in several ways. Lighting with a warm white or slightly pink cast is flattering and improves the sometimes pallor appearance of guests fresh from a hospital stay.  

A handheld shower and a seat within the shower or tub area is a convenience if some body areas must remain dry.  A full-length mirror on the bathroom door provides service to those in wheelchairs.  Phone service in the bathroom gives the option of calling for assistance in the event of a fall.

Kohler Company has developed a “universal bathroom” that accommodates a wide variety of physical limitations without adopting an institutional look.  Some of their suggestions include using removable, freestanding units for each cabinet under the sink so as to improve accessibility to both the cabinets and the sink, using upper shelves made of tempered glass to aid those with mobility aids to see shelf contents from below, and the use of floor to ceiling shower curtains rather than doors, which consume floor space.

If a new facility is being constructed to serve medical tourists, some additional considerations are suggested.  A few facilities have concealed medical gas hookups behind artwork beside the bed, allowing their use if needed.  Balconies or bay windows can greatly enhance the room comfort by providing expansive views.  Additional electrical outlets in the guest room are helpful to accommodate medical appliances.

A useful design is to create accommodations as two room suites, giving family members a separate living/sleeping space.  If such a design is used, a method for the guest to signal to family members in case of need is a valuable addition.  

Designs that place the family’s space between the medical tourist’s room and the corridor can reduce distracting noise.  Room doors can also be staggered so they don’t face each other in the corridor, as another way of reducing noise.

Borrowing from the medical hotel model that has resulted in US hospitals in Rhode Island, New York City, Yale Medical Center running an adjacent hotel, a nurse’s office on a dedicated floor might be an addition that permits immediate response to medical needs if an area is serving major surgery guests.  Other facilities have offered small on-floor exercise facilities, a massage room, or a public sitting area.

In addition to medical guest accommodations, some resorts have developed facilities to permit specific medical care on property.  Sometimes referred to as “medi-spas”, and particularly popular in Eastern Europe, these place the hotel in a position of not only providing accommodations but facilities for a wide range of procedures, in some cases including LASIK eye surgery, dental procedures, and wide-ranging forms of plastic surgery. Medi-spas represent the fastest growing segment of the spa industry, growing at a rate of 11-14 percent annually.

Others hotels have clinics and special equipment to provide radiology, diagnostic scans, lab services, and minor invasive surgery, such as the Palace of the Gold Horses, in Kula Lumpur.  These truly blur the line between hospitality and medical treatment, requiring influxes of sophisticated equipment, and becoming, on some properties, a part of a designated “patient care service zone”.

With growth of medical tourism projected to skyrocket in the next decade, now is the time for hotel properties to consider their interest in serving this special type of guest.  As we’ve seen, there are many approaches and considerations that can influence how a particular hotel may approach serving this clientele.  

An excellent and obvious starting point is for properties to consult with area health care facilities to discover the sort of patients being sought, as this will identify the types of recuperative needs that may need to be addressed.  

With a little creativity and consideration of medical traveler needs, room modification may be done in a value-added way that enhances the appeal of the guest room to not only medical travelers, but to all guests.

Dan Cormany

Dan Cormany is a doctoral student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, focusing his studies in the HotelCollege on medical tourism.  His emphasis is on hospitality’s potential roles in serving the medical tourist. Prior to starting these studies, he worked for 17 years as Dean of Students at Universities in Ohio, Florida and Hawaii, before embarking on a career change to hospitality.   His hotel work includes management positions for Loews Hotels, Hyatt Regency, and Wynn Las Vegas.  He holds a Master of Arts in College Administration and a Master of Science in Hotel Management.

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