Wellness Town, USA

Hospitals have never been a tourist draw, and most people dread the experience. So why has Henry Ford Health System hired a Ritz-Carlton executive to design and operate a medical center that offers organic food, promotes healthier lifestyles, and deep-sixes deep-fat fryers?
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The main concourse of Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital will offer retail kiosks, food stations, and space for musicians. Photograph by Roy Ritchie

Soon after longtime Ritz-Carlton executive Gerard van Grinsven was appointed president and CEO of Henry Ford Health System’s West Bloomfield Hospital project, he heard through a colleague that the new culinary team was meeting to plan the kitchen layout and menu selections. While no one thought to invite van Grinsven, who had overseen worldwide food and beverage offerings at the Ritz-Carlton for several years, including serving as general manager of the luxury chain’s Dearborn hotel from 2002 to 2006, he cast aside his meticulous social graces born from thousands of personal greetings, and decided to invite himself.

Slipping into the meeting unannounced, van Grinsven listened intently as a culinary team leader explained that the kitchen would feed hundreds of patients, employees, and visitors daily. “That part is correct,” van Grinsven thought. But what happened next alarmed him. “The team explained that there would be dozens of deep-fat fryers and a large amount of cubic freezer space,” he recalls. “At that moment, I started thinking about greasy French fries and chicken fingers, frozen food that would be thawed and served, and God knows what else. And is that really what we should be serving sick people [who] are in the midst of healing? It made no sense.”

Stepping forward to introduce himself, van Grinsven refused to blame anyone directly for following the standard operating procedures of nearly every hospital in the world. Rather, it was at that moment that he set out to turn the entire hospital system on its ear. Instead of building a facility centered on curing people of illness, disease, or complicated maladies like obesity or smoking, the West Bloomfield hospital, set to open March 15, would promote wellness at every turn. That meant, as his culinary staff soon learned, that there would no deep-fat fryers or freezers, save for a modest unit that would be used to house sorbet. “Ladies and gentlemen,” van Grinsven, 44, announced in his rich Dutch accent, “we are going to transform the hospital system for the betterment of the human race, and it starts right here.”

So how does a former hospitality executive with no medical background — he earned a bachelor’s of science from The Hotel Management School in Maastricht, The Netherlands — take on the daunting task of building a world-class hospital?

“Gerard wasn’t on my radar screen when we first started planning West Bloomfield, but he was on one of our boards, and I observed he was a tremendous leader,” recalls Nancy Schlichting, president and CEO of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. “He came to me one day and asked about some career advice, and he said he was attracted to health care, and even then I didn’t think of him. But it eventually occurred to me that he had the skill set to transform traditional hospital thinking and really embrace wellness. I just didn’t know he would excel at it.”

Mindful that he was charged, in part, by Schlichting to build a brand more powerful and recognizable than Google or the Mayo Clinic, van Grinsven kept an unusually low profile in 2006, the first year of his appointment. He used the time to pore over nutritional research, especially as it concerned food grown organically or via hydroponics. He also studied holistic healing practices like acupuncture and water therapy, as well as theories regarding indoor noise and natural light levels, and the latest in telecommunications equipment — research that convinced him to broadcast specific medical information to Internet-enabled televisions in each of the hospital’s 192 private rooms (with the ability to expand to 450 rooms in the future).

He also embarked on an arduous travel schedule. Close to home, he tapped into the private archives of automotive pioneer Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Co. and Henry Ford Hospital, for information on wellness. Having grown up on a farm in Dearborn, Ford developed a life-long passion for nutrition. Van Grinsven also visited organic farms in Michigan and the Midwest, sat down with nutritional experts, interviewed thought leaders and health care experts, and consulted financial experts to ascertain how the new facility could generate profits that would assist Henry Ford’s entire hospital network. The latter goal comes amid a medical environment known for strict cost controls such as set reimbursements for most procedures.

To transcend the fixed-cost environment as well as to provide cutting-edge services, van Grinsven developed a slew of novel ideas. For the 1,100 jobs the hospital will create (there will be 2,300 medical professionals overall), he had applicants — including those from Henry Ford Health System — undergo testing and interviews to ensure that they would excel in a nurturing, team environment. Perfection in such a setting was critical, given that there’s often little or no reimbursement for a second operation to fix an initial procedure. Better information-sharing, excellent communication practices, and electronic medical records are designed to limit mistakes and boost efficiency. “Seventy percent of medical errors happen due to poor or limited communication,” van Grinsven says. “We believe we will be well below that average.”

As for food services, van Grinsven knew that serving nutritional fare was an expensive proposition. So he tapped one of the region’s top chefs, Matt Prentice, and reached an agreement to hire aspiring culinary experts from Schoolcraft College in Livonia. The hospital will provide what is believed to be the world’s first culinary learning institute for health care. The plan was ingenious on two fronts — the students would learn to select and prepare healthier foods, skills they could utilize in their ongoing professional careers, and they wouldn’t command top salaries. The effort also meant that the food would be prepared and priced competitively, especially as the hospital will make a big drive to draw surrounding residents to take advantage of its various wellness offerings and classes, as well as Henry’s — the restaurant inside the new complex that Prentice will operate.

In addition, van Grinsven laid out plans to add a greenhouse to the complex to grow nutritional food such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots, some of which will be prepped and served at Henry’s. The greenhouse, scheduled to open in May, will also be an educational draw for school groups, senior clubs, and other visitors eager to learn about organic farming practices and how better nutrition leads to healthier lives. It also means patients will be happier, given that studies have consistently shown that healthy food boosts healing rates.

Other decisions broke from the past, as well. Healthy snacks and natural sodas will be offered at every turn, including fresh and bottled juices, purified water, protein drinks, organic teas, and gourmet coffee. Cereal bars, healthy chocolates, and other nutritious offerings will replace candy bars. Canned food will be limited, while the use of fat, salt, and processed sugar will be curtailed as much as possible.

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The hospital’s retail mix will include products for expectant mothers and newborns, sleeping aides, and exercise accessories. Illustration courtesy of Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital

Prentice, CEO of Matt Prentice Restaurant Group in Bingham Farms, which operates nine area restaurants including Coach Insignia atop Detroit’s Renaissance Center and Northern Lakes Seafood Co. in Bloomfield Hills, says van Grinsven approached him through a mutual friend two years ago. After reviewing the hospital plans, Prentice says he was impressed, and offered several suggestions for preparing kosher food, given the large number of Jewish residents in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“About five months later, Gerard came to see me and said he wanted me to be the leader of his culinary effort,” Prentice recalls. “Internally, I was excited, but my response was that I didn’t know if I could do it because this was something that had never been done before. I didn’t know if I could take the time away from my business, and I didn’t think Gerard could afford me.”

But van Grinsven was persistent. The floor to the hospital kitchen was about to be poured, and he wasn’t sure if everything was accounted for. “I remember getting home that night and thinking about what it would take to serve healthy, organic food in a hospital setting, and I just dove into the project,” Prentice says. “It’s been every day now, for fours hours a day on average, so that’s around 3,000 hours I have into this. It’s exciting but also ironic, given that I’ve had friends and family members who have been in competing hospitals that served incredibly bad food.”

A longtime friend, along with Prentice’s mother and daughter, had been in area hospitals for various reasons, and each time the chef refused to let them eat the food. “In one instance, my friend was recovering from heart surgery and they were going to serve him chicken broth with a lot of sodium in it, which isn’t a good thing for your heart,” Prentice recalls. “I had my staff prepare a double chicken consommé with all kinds of vegetables, and I brought it in the next day and asked the nurses to give it to him every hour. His roommate was also in bad shape, so I made a bunch of it for him, as well.”

Prentice credits his “magic broth,” as he likes to call it, to saving his mother’s life. “She had slipped and hit her head, and she was in intensive care for eight days, and when I saw the food they were serving, I said: ‘Here we go again.’ Lunch was canned pears, green beans from a can that were brown, macaroni and cheese, a yeast roll, coffee, and a little juice. Then they sent her to a nursing home to recuperate, and I served her three meals a day. I truly believe if I hadn’t fed her the nutritional food that she needed to heal, she would still be bedridden. And my mom’s a very proud woman.”

Those experiences drove Prentice to learn everything he could about organic food. After visiting organic farms, researching cooking techniques, learning about growth patterns, and studying numerous other issues, he put together a 75-page book and presented it to a team of 20 staff members that included seven executive chefs, their sous chefs, a master baker, and a corporate pastry chef. “Although we all love butter and cream and red meat, those aren’t the things you should be serving sick people,” Prentice says. “At culinary school, they teach you how to cook to please, but not much about nutrition.”

With his team in place, Prentice and his staff will be preparing a new menu every two weeks, due to the varying supply of organic food. He also has adopted healthy sections for all of his restaurant menus, and says the items have proven popular in every location except his No.VI Chop House in Novi. “People do like to splurge once in a while,” he says.

To complement the organic food at the $360-million, 730,000-square-foot hospital, van Grinsven made sure to include a 90-seat auditorium that can be used for community activities, scientific symposiums, or cooking classes via a kitchen stadium. Van Grinsven has already reached out to The Food Network about hosting healthy cooking classes on the popular cable channel. “Our mission is to spread the message of proper nutrition to the rest of the world, and we’ll host hospital chefs, cable shows, and the community at large,” he says. “We hope to create a lot of economic activity at our hospital and draw travelers from around the world who will pay to learn and carry that knowledge back to their respective communities.”

During the time the general concept of the hospital was being formulated, van Grinsven headed up north to Charlevoix, Petoskey, and numerous other small rural towns. “Once I saw northern Michigan, I knew we should design the hospital after a northern Michigan resort,” he recalls. “We used a lot of natural fieldstone in the design, maximized the views of the surrounding landscape, and really brought a lot of natural plants indoors. We also designed the main concourse after a small downtown district so that it was more inviting and accommodating. We feel these actions will help our patients relax and heal more quickly.”

The former hotel executive also took some cues from the retail industry. Working with architects from Albert Kahn Associates Inc. in Detroit (Turner Construction Co. was the contractor), the design team created a large, spacious entrance that will be staffed with greeters. Visitors will be directed down a large open concourse that curves gently through the center of the complex. On one side, brick and window treatments will evoke a quaint Main Street-type environment (think the interior of Ford Field, where the stadium adjoins the historic Hudson’s warehouse).

The other side will house numerous storefronts offering much more than the typical hospital fare of a small pharmacy or medical supply store. The Live Well Shoppe, for example, will offer products geared to healthy cooking and nutrition, as well as exercise supplies and home goods like earth-friendly bed linens, natural and organic cosmetics, eco-friendly gift cards, and fresh-cut flowers. The shop will connect to “DK,” short for the display kitchen in the auditorium. Other stores will include New Blooms, featuring items for expectant mothers and newborns; Sleep Well, offering products to improve rest periods, such as organic mattresses and pillows; and Vita, a wellness institute providing body, massage, and water therapies, alternative medicine, a body and mind studio, a fitness center, and 11 healing rooms.

The spacious concourse will include space for flower carts, decorative kiosks, and food stations offering healthy pancakes or salads. There will also be room for street performers, and a modest stage where a small number of musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra or other groups can perform.

henry ford health west bloomfield hospital
The hospital, set on a 168-acre campus at Maple and Drake, was modeled after a northern Michigan resort. Photograph courtesy of Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital

In addition, Vita will offer classes and sessions for acupuncture, yoga, and Pilates, among other wellness programs. Steam rooms and saunas are available. The entire center will be designed after a European spa, and will include a concierge desk. “You can schedule yourself for a massage and they can page you when they’re ready, or you can make an appointment,” van Grinsven says.

The hospital, working with area employers, may also offer a rewards program. According to a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, workers are two to four times more likely to enroll in wellness programs if they receive positive incentives such as gift cards or premium reductions. More employers are embracing such programs because they help boost productivity, improve employee loyalty, and heighten corporate responsibility.

“We’re going to place a big emphasis on being proactive as it relates to your own wellness,” van Grinsven says. “We’ll have cooking classes geared to families, children, single parents, or cancer patients. We’ll also use the classes to address the No. 1 epidemic in the United States, which is obesity.” The facility will also look to reduce the national average on another front — 75 percent of the work at a typical hospital is the management of chronic diseases.

At the end of the concourse, which will be complemented by an outdoor café, visitors will enter a large atrium outfitted with numerous plants and flowers, a plaza, a teahouse, and other vendors. Several dozen rooms in the four-story complex will overlook the atrium, while other rooms will have views of the 168-acre campus, including a small lake, woodlands, and walking and bike paths.

Unlike most hospital layouts, Henry Ford West Bloomfield may be taking a risk by only offering private rooms. That’s not to say the health care facility will be exclusive — rather, studies have show that private rooms cut infection rates by up to 50 percent. What’s more, visitors can come and go as they please. And they can spend the night with a loved one, as each room is outfitted with a bench sofa (with floor-level drawers for pillows and blankets).

The rooms — really suites equipped with a private bath — will suppress noise via special ceiling panels. In addition, there will be no overhead paging system. A flat-screen television will offer access to movies, virtual shopping, instructional series, and the Internet. The TVs will also be equipped with small cameras so patients can communicate with loved ones who may be away or living in warmer climates during the winter. To reduce stress levels, the emergency entrance will be secluded. And the new emergency room will offer a call-ahead program for pre-registered patients.

Marketing will be another ongoing endeavor. Van Grinsven wants the hospital to be on par or better than many of its competitors, like the Cleveland Clinic or the Mayo Clinic. That’s why the hospital will offer a range of disciplines, including the Josephine Ford Cancer Center, a Bone and Joint Center, a Heart and Vascular Institute, the Vattikuti Urology Institute, and a Center for Women and Children’s Health, among others. “We will be spreading what we learn at West Bloomfield to our other hospitals, but we’re also taking our success stories and putting them into West Bloomfield,” Schlichting notes.

In addition to drawing medical personnel, van Grinsven hopes the complex will lure patients from around the world, often referred to as medical tourism. And if demand warrants, a boutique hotel may be built on the grounds.

“Three years after opening, I want the Ritz-Carlton to come and benchmark us,” van Grinsven says. “That would be the ultimate sign that we’ve done our job. However, the challenge will be maintaining and improving upon our momentum.” In some sense, the former hotel executive may have already met his goal. Officials from the Mayo Clinic have met with van Grinsven several times, and the plan is to develop a partnership to improve wellness around the world.