Love, Nurture and Health Care

October 5, 2007
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Although he is somewhat embarrassed to admit it, Michael Love grew up with plans to become a physician. He was fascinated with the medical field, and as an undergraduate, his favorite subjects were biology and his pre-med coursework. But, to his mother’s disappointment, Love turned to enterprise instead.

“I always thought I was going to become a doctor,” recalled the president of Nurture by Steelcase, a health care environments company. “But I hated the sight of blood, so that didn’t work out. I’ve always been fascinated by medicine, so it’s been fun to get back into it. I couldn’t have dreamt that I’d end up doing something related to health care in this mode whatsoever.”

Now in his second quarter-century with the world’s largest office furniture maker, Love is leading the company’s most significant initiative in the domestic market: Nurture, a standalone brand that introduces evidence-based design to health care furnishings. While the brand has surpassed the company’s expectations in its first 16 months, it has been a steep learning curve for Love and his staff. Unlike the parent company’s core market, the Steelcase crew had no frame of reference for this new venture.

“With the other parts of the Steelcase business, all we have to do is walk across the street to the global headquarters to see how people work in an office,” said Love, who sat for an interview with Health Quarterly at the new Nurture showroom at Steelcase University in Grand Rapids. “This is the closest thing we have to a health care setting at Steelcase. Yet we don’t have any patients here. Nobody is sick or suffering. If I go lay in that room for an hour, I don’t know if that is what it’s really like to be in a hospital.”

Nurture is likely the only place in the Steelcase group of companies, and perhaps the entire West Michigan business landscape, where hospitalization is considered productive time. Even after long consultations with his wife, a nurse of 20 years, it wasn’t until being hospitalized with a bout of vertigo that director of product development Alan Rheault was able to finish the design of the award-winning Opus Overbed Table.

Love was influenced by his own trip to the hospital.

Then president of the Steelcase Design Partnership, Love was on the tail end of a feasibility study for Nurture when his first granddaughter was born at a New York City hospital. The delivery room was very comfortable, but the maternity ward was the opposite. His wife, daughter, son-in-law, new granddaughter and himself were all packed into half of a small double room. The chairs were uncomfortable; the other patient had the window side of the room — and an equivalent amount of visitors. If his son-in-law chose to stay through the night, he’d have his choice of the aforementioned uncomfortable chair or a vinyl lounge that “looked like if you lied on it your skin would peel off.”

“I don’t know of another time that you go to the hospital for a happy occasion, and this should have been a happy occasion,” Love said. “Then you go to these other hospitals that have these great rooms … that is when you start talking about choice.”

A native New Yorker, Love worked as salesman for Xerox Corp. for a decade before joining Steelcase’s Big Apple sales team in 1981. He was soon relocated to Florida, where he ran a regional sales office, and a decade later was appointed president of Dallas-based Vecta, one of the Steelcase Design Partnership companies.

In 2000, Love was promoted to president of the Steelcase Design Partnership, where he was exposed to the health care products of the Brayton International and DesignTex divisions. As demographic evidence began to suggest a surge in health care construction, Love became increasingly concerned about penetrating that market.

The company’s health care products were selling well, but as these represented 20 percent or less of the revenue for the Design Partnership firms, he expected health care products would always take a back seat to office furniture. If the company was going to take advantage of the health care boom, it would need to bring its offerings to the forefront.

“As the company was looking at what our growth opportunities were out there, we knew there was the international market with Asia, and, domestically, we suspected it was health care,” said Love, who introduced the idea to CEO Jim Hackett. “We spent the next 12 months studying the market to see if what we felt anecdotally was true.”

The Nurture staff talked to dozens of hospitals, architects, interior designers and purchasing networks, including some of the more notable facilities in the country — the Mayo Clinic, Massachusetts General Hospital and Ascension Health, among others.

They quickly realized that there was an opportunity in the health care industry to apply the model of solutions-oriented design that had for years driven the office furniture segment.

“We realized we had something here,” Love said. “By approaching it differently from what anyone else was, we could have a value proposition that hadn’t been developed yet.”

Since its launch last year, Nurture has worked hard to prove itself to the industry. It has conducted health care design roundtables with leading architects and designers in 14 different markets. Love has visited a different hospital or health care facility each week since the launch. His designers have visited several times as many. The company has published a number of research reports concerning health care workplaces, none that explicitly promote Steelcase products.

The company acquired Canadian health care furniture manufacturer Softcare to expand its product line and a staff experienced in the market. It has worked hard to show how Steelcase’s sustainability commitment translates to health care needs, and has acquainted itself with the nation’s top health care facility design firms and the needs of infection control managers, a concern that doesn’t exist in the office sector.

“I feel like I’m getting ready to write a new dining book on cafeterias and hospitals that I’ve eaten at,” Love said. “It’s fascinating to see what is taking place. In Indianapolis last week, it was as good as any food court I’ve been in. There was even a smell coming out — the designer told me they purposely burn rosemary and pine to give the place a non-hospital aroma.”

Improving scores on the Press Ganey Associates Inc. patient satisfaction rating system is a top priority for many health care systems, and has motivated institutions to take steps that include private rooms, gourmet food and valet parking. Many times, the solutions are quite simple. One West Michigan hospital improved its Press Ganey score by simply adding a card table to the waiting room.

“It’s a matter of how to make people feel relaxed in a health care setting,” Love said. “If the doctor tells you, ‘Your dad is having heart surgery; come back in four hours,’ you’re going to get coffee and camp out. You’re going to be on pins and needles.”

Parallel to that, operational efficiency is a constant concern. To some degree, these are the same concerns that Steelcase and its peers have been working to address in the office furniture industry for decades.

And like the manufacturers in the office furniture industry, Nurture is working hard to solve solutions for problems the health care providers might not even know they have.

“I don’t think anybody ever woke up and said they need a computer,” said Love. “If you ask somebody what they want, they’ll just say a better version of what they have now. You need to watch them work — then you’ll see what they need.”

For every “work-around” created by a health care worker to fulfill their duties, there should be a corresponding design solution. This could be a sit-to-stand workstation, stools at nurse stations, or a medication prep table in patient rooms to use instead of a patient’s over-bed table.

Much like the office furniture segment, health care furnishings need to be flexible, adaptive, and if possible, predictive. Nurture is working with medical technology firms to design furniture that will match the technology of a next-generation health care facility. As the company sometimes works with architects and designers years in advance, this becomes an absolute necessity.

For instance, Nurture recently completed an installation for a facility set to open later this year. A surprise upgrade in the technology used by the hospital staff for day-to-day operations has already made that design plan obsolete, and Nurture is in the midst of revamping the installation to meet the new technology footprint.

“We need to anticipate where technology is going,” Love said.

“When I started at Steelcase 26 years ago, PCs were just starting to come into the office, and then all of a sudden you walked in one day and your desk was consumed by your monitor. Then down the road, you come in one day and you’ve got a flat screen.

“Electronic medical records are the way of the future — I’m not saying anything that anyone in a hospital wouldn’t say — so now how do we react to that? What does it mean to the staff, to nurses, to a patient and families?”

Dealers have warmly embraced the Nurture brand, and there is competition for showrooms across the U.S. Recently, a U.S. dealer tour, intended for 25 dealers, spread to more than 100. The company has received inquiries from hospitals as far away as Moscow and Shanghai, where it has done no marketing.

When he is not in a hospital, Love is an avid golfer, ballroom dancer and cook. HQX

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