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Amenities, upgrades mark hospitals’ competition for Buffalo babies

One day after Lillian Vermeulen entered the world in Sisters Hospital, she and her parents recovered in a “special beginnings suite” that featured a flat-screen TV, a Keurig coffee maker and a free half-hour, in-room massage for mom.

Two miles away, and several days earlier, Damien Rak slept peacefully in Women & Children’s Hospital in a spacious private room that offered sweeping views of the downtown skyline. Mom Nicole George and dad Paul Rak raved about the staff and the accommodations.

“I feel like I’m in a hotel,” George said.

Lillian and Damien are two of the 11,000 babies expected to be born this year at the area’s four main maternity hospitals: Kaleida Health’s Children’s and Millard Fillmore Suburban hospitals and Catholic Health System’s Sisters and Mercy hospitals.

The health systems are investing millions of dollars into delivery and maternity rooms and neonatal intensive care units, offering resort-worthy amenities and advertising online, on TV and on billboards.

There’s a lot at stake in the baby wars, with the hospitals vying for a bigger slice of the maternity market – and to win over mom, dad and baby as long-term, repeat customers.

“It’s such a fierce competition,” said Allegra Jaros, vice president of hospital operations at Children’s.

Officials with Kaleida and Catholic Health both say their attentive, highly skilled doctors and nurses provide top-notch, personalized care, but the two hospital systems also seek to stand out in the maternity marketplace.

Kaleida says Children’s treats the most critically ill newborns, including many babies transferred from other hospitals, while Catholic Health touts its ability to treat sick mothers and infants in the same building.

Since prospective parents typically follow their obstetrician to a hospital, these marketing efforts seek to reach parents-to-be early in the process.

“We focus on, pick a doctor that lets you deliver at the Catholic Health System,” said Aimee Gomlak, the vice president for its women’s service line.

Last year, the Catholic Health hospitals edged out Kaleida for baby bragging rights.

Sisters, on Main Street, (3,292), and Mercy, in South Buffalo, (2,384), delivered 5,676 babies.

Meanwhile, Kaleida’s Children’s, in the Elmwood Village (2,965), and Suburban, in Amherst, (2,479), delivered 5,444 babies.

Several hospitals outside Erie County also deliver a smaller number of babies.

“No matter what any billboard tells you, Catholic Health has delivered more babies,” Gomlak said.

The systems are competing for a declining pool of pregnancies, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, which showed the number of births in Erie County fell from 11,280 in 2000 to 9,773 in 2010.

“There’s only so many patients,” said an obstetrician who has delivered at Suburban, Sisters and Children’s over his 15 years in the area. He asked not to be named to avoid offending anyone at either system.

Creating a brand

The competition is being waged through the systems’ marketing campaigns.

A baby born at Children’s or Suburban hospitals is a “Buffalo Baby,” according to Kaleida’s ads running on a TV, website or roadside billboard near you.

“It’s just basically a brand that we created that’s a memorable, easily recognizable, repeatable thing for the general public,” said John Moscato, a spokesman for Children’s.

Catholic Health has a less-expensive, online-based marketing campaign, promoting Sisters as a “Special BirthPlace” and Mercy as a “Family BirthPlace.”

Both systems can point to major investments to their facilities.

In 2009, Catholic Health spent $1 million to convert Sisters’ maternity rooms to private rooms, each with bathroom and shower, and to create two deluxe “special beginning suites.”

The same year, the system spent $1.8 million at Mercy, constructing a new family waiting area, converting all patient rooms to private rooms and adding five “celebration suites.”

Kelly Mullins, of Lake View, delivered her three children – Grace, 7; Everett, 4; and Nora, five months – at Mercy. She and her husband, Rob, had to pay extra for a single room for Everett’s delivery. But by the time they had Nora, every room was private.

The hospital did offer an upgraded suite, for $100 extra, but the couple declined.

“The nurse said, ‘It’s not worth it. Don’t do it,’ ” said Mullins, a part-time human-resources manager.

Her doctor has privileges at Mercy and Children’s, and left it up to Mullins to decide where to deliver. She opted against Children’s because she worried about having a lot of extra residents and medical students around.

As for the gift bags and special features, she said, “Those are cute little ideas, but it’s not going to sway me.”

Kaleida spent $6.2 million on renovations to the labor-and-delivery and mother-baby units at Children’s. That work, completed in late 2011, included 14 private postpartum rooms with showers.

At Suburban, Kaleida is spending $2.6 million to create an NICU within existing space in the facility, eliminating the need to transport at-risk newborns to another hospital.

“This is the natural consequence – and it is a lot of money – of a health-care system based on profit and market share. People are going to be fighting for both,” said Bruce Boissonnault, president and CEO of the Niagara Health Quality Coalition, referring to the systems’ investments. “It’s not just in the youth areas.”

Highlighting differences

Katie Kinder Potenza gave birth to twin boys, Drew and Will, on June 20 in Suburban, where she previously delivered daughter Mary Cate, who is now 23 months.

Sisters made geographic sense for the Parkside resident, but she loves her doctor, and both deliveries went well.

“They made me feel like I was the most successful pregnant person on the planet,” said Potenza, who will appear in an upcoming Kaleida marketing campaign.

Officials at Kaleida and Catholic Health take pains to highlight the differences between the two systems.

Children’s Hospital, Kaleida employees insist, is the best place to go for deliveries that may have complications, because only Children’s can handle newborn surgeries. Kaleida officials say 300 babies each year are transferred to the Children’s neonatal intensive care unit from other area hospitals.

Children’s is the only hospital in Western New York designated by the state Health Department as a regional perinatal center, meaning it offers specialized care for high-risk cases.

“This is the best – the safest place,” said Dr. Gil Farkash, Kaleida Health’s chief of service for OB/GYN, whose two daughters were born at Children’s. He previously also had privileges at Sisters and Mercy but now delivers only at Children’s, and he said the few patients he lost in the switch were motivated by geographic convenience or transportation issues.

Catholic Health officials, however, say Sisters has a Level 3 NICU.

“We take care of really, really sick babies, too,” Gomlak said, and Sisters and Mercy combined send about 30 babies per year to Children’s for higher-level care. Further, they tout Sisters and Mercy as the only hospitals in this area where seriously ill babies and mothers can be treated under the same roof.

Children’s responds that it can treat most mothers who take ill and it’s only on rare occasions – one per month, at most – that mothers are transferred to another hospital, typically Buffalo General or Suburban.

For uncomplicated births and healthy babies, which are the vast majority of deliveries, there is little difference between Sisters and Children’s in the level of care provided, the anonymous veteran local obstetrician said

The obstetrician’s role

Hospital choice is largely physician-driven, but this obstetrician said between 10 and 20 percent of his patients have a strong preference. “Some patients were pretty adamant,” he said.

Since obstetricians play a large role in determining where women deliver, local advertising executive Allison Conte wonders whether Kaleida Health and Sisters should change the target of their campaigns.

“Is the marketing really focused on consumers, or should they be tailoring it to the physicians?” asked Conte, a senior account supervisor with Eric Mower & Associates, which has a new moms specialty group that studies how brands can best reach those consumers.

Word-of-mouth, even more than an ad campaign, can influence mothers-to-be. Whether they have a good or bad experience, Conte said, “The one thing moms do is talk to their friends.”

Officials at each system concede the other provides high-quality care, so the pitch to moms centers on extra services.

During a recent visit to Children’s, Jaros and Farkash showed off one of five labor delivery recovery, or LDR, rooms, which were renovated in 2011 with new beds, flat-screen TVs, cabinets and fetal monitors.

Children’s has 14 postpartum rooms in its Mother Baby Unit, where moms rest until they are discharged. Children’s does not have special suites that can be rented for an extra fee, but all the rooms are private.

“It’s an incredible experience you’re having when you come in to deliver a baby,” Children’s Hospital’s Jaros said. “You want to make it as nice as possible.”

Nicole George was in one of the rooms on a recent Friday, as she and Damien rested after his birth early that morning.

George’s daughter, Alexis, who is 4, was born in Sisters, but she switched to Children’s for her son’s delivery because her doctor changed practices.

“I was anxious to see the difference,” George said.

The items George and other Children’s’ mothers take home include blankets, provided by the Buffalo Sabres as part of a cross-marketing deal, that say, “We Live Hockey” and list the baby’s number as 13, for 2013.

At Sisters, new moms receive bags of Crabtree & Evelyn toiletries and items such as baby blankets with the hospital name.

A tour of Sisters’ Main Street hospital came the day the Duchess of Cambridge went into labor, and royal baby talk was on everyone’s mind.

“Here’s where all of our princes and princesses are being delivered today,” quipped JoAnn Cavanaugh, a Catholic Health spokeswoman.

Sisters’ 10 labor and delivery rooms were full that morning, and the hospital was tracking toward 300 deliveries for July, a high for the year.

After delivery, parents and baby move to the maternity unit, one floor up.

Alyson and David Vermeulen were in one of the “special beginnings suites” with Lillian, who was born three weeks early. The East Amherst residents decided to deliver at Sisters – and to select an obstetrician with privileges there – after hearing praise from family and friends, and taking a tour.

“We wanted to find a hospital that was clean. Just some place that you feel comfortable in,” Alyson said, adding, “Everybody was so nice.”