Let’s be honest, Marin carries a reputation. From the outside, it’s chock full of drum circles, versions of yoga that haven’t been invented yet and aura readings. The county just north of the Golden Gate is credited with knowing the difference between chi and chai and snuggling New Age culture so close to its bosom it’s practically old hat.
And while some Marinites might chafe at a status linking their hometown with a sacred journey to find a state of Zen, others take those organic free-trade lemons and make lemonade.
Hello, Marin General Hospital.
The business of health
Health care is a very complicated business these days, and as President Trump, a noted wordsmith, reminded us not long ago, “Who knew?” Turns out the folks at Marin General had a pretty good idea. The Greenbrae center is a rarity these days, an independent community hospital without the benefit of a health-care chain. The hospital, which has been around since 1952, is the only full-service acute care facility in the county. And it’s locked in mortal combat with Kaiser Permanete’s San Rafael Medical Center as well as Sutter Health’s Novato Community Hospital. To a lesser extent, Marin General also competes for the hearts, minds and dollars of patients considering hospitals in Sonoma and Napa and even larger teaching hospitals like UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco and Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto.
While not many of us are doctors, and even fewer of us play one on TV, most of us have an idea of what hospitals are like. Highly educated doctors and nurses with years of critical experience work closely together using the highest medical technology along with aspirin that cost $62.37 each to treat our boo-boos.
But we don’t shop for our medical care like we do a new SUV, though that medical care might cost as much as that new SUV. Jamie Maites, the director of communications at Marin General understands this. Says Maites, “Health care services are a ‘considered purchases’ for some things and an ‘urgent or emergent’ purchase for others. Patients don’t tend to choose health care like they would a retail item in a store.”
Indeed selling health care is different from peddling widgets. And while Maites jobs isn’t to sell MGH’s services, it is her job to explain what MGH does. She leads the marketing folks, a group that Maites characterizes as “small but mighty.” The crew includes two marketing specialists and a digital expert who handles the website and social media projects. She says the hospital’s marketing budget is modest, but did not furnish a total.
A healing place
Which leads us to the star of the show, “My Healing Place,” a locally sourced high-concept that is part real ingredients and part imagined and all Marin. For instance, the Marin General website includes a microsite that showcases real patient stories featured in the hospital’s “Healing Place” marketing campaign. This microsite is dedicated to healing, which sounds reasonably healthy for a place where you can’t swing a stethoscope without hitting a doctor and the ambulance bays are lousy with, well ambulances.
But the healing page contains links to a variety of things. For instance, there is a list of locations referred to as “Healing Places,” places in Marin and Sonoma that visitors to the page consider addresses where curing takes place. There are 30 in all, and they range from Blackie’s Pasture in Tiburon to Sky Camp at Pt. Reyes National Seashore.
But Healing Places also include the spaces we visit when our minds wander, taking flight in travel fueled by our imaginations. As the folks at Marin General put it, “More than just a place, Marin is a state of mind. One that lives in all of us who love the land—and the lifestyle—available right at the front door.” As often as we can, we walk, run, hike, bike, swim and paddle while we take in the natural beauty that surrounds us. And somewhere between the ocean and the bay, from Mt. Tam to the redwood forests, we find balance, peace, inspiration and energy. Put simply, Marin is a transformative, healing place.”
I won’t argue with this concept. The mind is a powerful thing in many of us, something that can solve wondrous riddles of the universe and if not able to disentangle age-old conflicts like the Middle East, it can at least bring an inner peace to the soul.
Not all minds, however, are powerful, and once again I give you President Donald J. Trump.
Another part of Healing Places contains links to 14 profiles of former MGH patients who share their healing stories about how they entered the hospital with a wide variety of injuries, conditions and diseases, and emerged from the Greenbrae complex not only in better health but also determined to take their life back. The description of these lives always includes a mix of outdoor activities, ranging from hiking to surfing to bocce ball.
Nine of those stories also have videos and some became commercials. One of those features Doug McConnell, an affable local TV host who shares his story of having a stroke while hiking with his dogs. McConnell credits his treatment at Marin General with his recovery so that he now is not only back on the trail but also back on TV showing Bay Area residents on OpenRoad where they can commune with Mom Nature.
This is as good a place as any to do the full disclosure thing. While I’m writing about Marin General, I have also been a patient there as well, having had a pair of surgeries performed in 2015. Both surgeries went well and this does influences my view of MGH from the standpoint that I did not die or anything.
More confession. Some of the information in this story was derived from questions that were emailed to Maites at her request because she has a very busy schedule. A short follow-up interview did occur as well. For the most part we have treated her written replies as direct quotes—except in those instances where I have chosen to take them out of context and twist them for my own savage needs. (That last part is a joke.)
Maites says that the Healing Place campaign was the product of a partnership with Compass Marketing, a marketing and branding company in Lafayette, California. The collaboration with Compass, along with input from market research, feedback from the community and focus groups revealed that Marin residents see their county as filled with natural beauty and a lifestyle that is “transformative and healing.” Maites said Marin as much as anything else is state of mind.
Compass has many health care clients that include Kaiser as well as El Camino Hospital. The tie to El Camino is meaningful in that Marin General’s CEO, chief information officer as well as a former vice president all were alums of El Camino, a successful 400 bed non-profit in the South Bay.
This is not the first time that an organization has tried to cash in on Marin’s view of the world and itself. The Marin Convention and Visitors Bureau originated a campaign encouraging tourists to visit the county wedged between the Golden Gate and the Wine Country, with the tag line, “Marin County, just a little out there.”
At any rate, Healing Place campaign was launched in 2014 as a way to get people in the North Bay to associate that state of mind with the hospital located smack dab in the middle of it, to turn Marin General into a destination for high quality health care that heals body, mind and spirit.
This was something of a new idea and a necessity, for different reasons. Maites, who arrived at MGH in 2010, said the hospital had never really done much in the way of brand marketing. An organized campaign would not only bait the hook for those might need medical services, but also educate the residents as to what sorts of medical expertise and high tech healing could be had over there off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.
It would also do something that Maites didn’t bring up. While Marin General has always been a community-based facility, it has not always been managed locally. A partnership between the hospital district and Sutter Health called for the latter to manage the hospital on a leased basis. Many partnerships are monuments to collaboration blending strengths and weaknesses into a chemistry that fuels success and in some cases, even love. Others are examples of combinations that never work out, like Trump and the truth—or Adam Sandler and motion pictures.
Sutter and MGH was like that. A war was waged for local control of the hospital that took years to resolve and kept the courts busy. In 2006 the two sides agreed to terminate the lease of the hospital early, but it still took four years before MGH and Sutter were separated like a badly married couple.
In the process Marin General’s reputation suffered. The public knew it from years of headlines about the hospital war and a public process that at times carried more gore than a bad night in Marin General’s emergency room.
So painting Marin General as a place that was tranquil, a spot where healing happened and people emerged stronger, could mend the reputation of the community hospital and the image of a place torn by conflict.
Hospital heal thyself, and Your Healing Place was born.
The healing power of music
But there is more to the selling of Marin General than Your Healing Place. For instance, the hospital has its own Pandora Internet radio station: Marin General Hospital’s Healing Sounds. “Music is a critical component of integrative healing and since our focus is on healing the whole person, we felt creating a custom Pandora station was another natural fit,” is how Maites put it.
The station began with primarily Marin artists being played, but at some point the mix became less geographical. A recent sample included Santana, jazz legend Dave Brubeck and Chicago blue’s stalwart Mike Bloomfield. For those people using the free Pandora service, the channel also includes messages from the hospital and links that bring the listener to the hospital website.
In some ways, Marin General is like almost every other hospital in America. There is an emergency room, surgery suites, and hospital rooms stocked with monitors of every description. And like every other hospital in America, Marin General seeks to differentiate itself from the rest. With that in mind, the hospital has rolled out its Center for Integrative Health & Wellness. It’s a one-stop shop that seeks to find a meeting of Eastern Medicine and western medical technology. It offers patients acupuncture, massage, expressive art therapy, guided imagery, fitness counseling, healthy weight for wellness, mindfulness and guided relaxation, and yoga. There are also classes in Qigong and Jin Shin Jyutsu.
The hospital also includes healing gardens which have a marble fountain and medicinal plants and are designed to be a retreat for patients awaiting treatment.
Lest you think that Marin is a one-trick-pony, it also has several more mainstream medical draws to bring in prospective patients. In June, the Marin Healthcare District opened its new Breast Health Center, that expands the hospital’s comprehensive breast health program, a comprehensive facility that among other technologies offers mammography that yields three-dimensional images able to detect cancer at a 30 percent higher rate than traditional instruments.
The hospital has struck up collaborations with UCSF for neurosurgery, cardiothoracic surgery, pediatrics, and neonatal care. And another collaboration with Stanford University aids vascular surgery patients.
It also boasts the family birth center, a deluxe facility at a time when the rest of the hospital industry is trying to assess the reward and risk of birthing centers. Marin General also has its own Cancer Institute with services that range from diagnosis to access to clinical trials and a range of therapies.
Marin General also has a Heart and Vascular Institute which has won awards for consistent care in heart and vascular services.
On the horizon
But by far the largest undertaking of the hospital to become a destination was brought by an 2001 edict from the state saying that the medical center was not compliant from a seismic health standpoint. So the hospital has embarked on a $535 million construction project, thanks in part to a $394 million bond measure that voters approved in 2013. The project includes an already built parking structure complete with solar panels. It will also yield 171 new private rooms (114 in the new building and 57 in the current West Wing) in a pair of four-story towers that will also include operating suites, a new intensive care unit as well as a new emergency room. Patient rooms will be located on the perimeter of the building yielding both more quiet and privacy for those being treated but also view of the outside world to include Mount Tamalpais.
And while the project will be loaded with the kinds of medical technology the actors on Chicago Med and Grey’s Anatomy can only dream of, a main focus of the design is creature comfort and providing an environment that resembles a spa setting. Natural light provided by floor-to-ceiling windows, skylights and solariums as well as green areas that will make green thumbs green with envy.
Hospital CEO Leo Domanico has described the new project as place where “tranquility matters.”
The current project includes construction materials that are made from recycled materials and sustainable woods. This is after all, Marin, and it isn’t like a new hospital would be constructed with less than high environmental standards. The hospital board has committed to attaining at least a Silver LEED certification for green construction.
Phase one of the project includes the two new towers (MGH 2.0), and is slated for completion in 2020. A second phase, which will include a five story ambulatory services building and another parking structure is not yet scheduled.
So not only is Marin General pitching its hospital as a place that will fix your broken hand or get to the bottom of that unsightly rash you don’t want to talk about, it’s also building a new place that wants to help heal your soul as well.
From the outside, the notion of healing the whole person may sound like a line fashioned from a focus group and too much time spent in a room that has been saged so the tarot cards and crystals could communicate better.
The thing is healing the whole person resonates with folks in Marin in much the same way that shopping for organic produce at Whole Foods does. And this is an operating philosophy that has been shaped over time.
The other thing to remember is that Marin is getting older faster than most places, and we people rich with life experience tend to get sick—when we aren’t surfing or hiking Mt. Tam or skydiving in the nude while taking mushrooms.
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