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Hospitality Meets Health Care

UNLV professors are extending their wealth of knowledge in guest satisfaction to boost Nevada’s emerging health care tourism industry.
People  |  Jul 2, 2013  |  By UNLV News Center

Stowe Shoemaker, the dean of the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration. (Aaron Mayes / UNLV Photo Services)

Editor's Note: 

This essay by Stowe Shoemaker, dean of the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration, is part of the This Way Up series.


History does repeat itself. In 2004, after nearly a decade teaching at UNLV, I moved to Houston, a city that became a model for overcoming an economy-killing downturn in its key sector -- the energy market.

The Las Vegas I came back to in 2011 certainly was different from the booming city that I left. It was, of course, hardest hit by the mortgage crisis. With all the construction cranes stalled, the state leaders took up economic diversification efforts with gusto.

The governor's office has developed an economic development plan that dovetails beautifully with the work done by UNLV's Brookings Mountain West think tank. Leaders have recognized that diversification doesn't mean replacing our key sectors -- gaming and tourism -- but expanding on them. And a vital component in all planning efforts is tapping into the intellectual capital that already exists at the university.

UNLV has been extending its resources to development efforts in many areas -- including clean energy development, social services improvements, and market analysis. Not surprisingly, I am most excited to see how our strength in hospitality can be used to build up other industries, including health care and health care tourism.

Some have used the term medical tourism but I prefer health care tourism because it is much broader than medical services. With our worldclass spas, we can lead in wellness-centered vacations. Las Vegas is known for having some of the top doctors in specialties that are a particular draw internationally, including fertility treatment, gastric bypass surgery, and hip and knee replacements.

But Las Vegas also has strength in customer service, revenue management, and training facilities. In all of these areas, UNLV can be a major contributor to industry advancements.

Hotel administration assistant professor Dina Zemke, for example, is an expert in the atmospherics of the hotel environment and the effects of ambient scents in a place. Now imagine the last time you walked into a medical facility. How was your experience shaped by that first whiff you got walking through the door? Zemke is working with University Medical Center and with UNLV dental medicine professor James Mah to apply her knowledge to medical environments.

Interdisciplinary studies professor Sheila Bock studies cultural influences related to diabetes. She, hotel administration professor Carola Raab, and I are collaborating on nutritional labeling and how we can draw from menu design research to influence what people eat.

And several professors, including Olena Mazurenko and Chris Cochran in the School of Allied Health Sciences are working with hospitality professors to apply aspects of customer satisfaction to patient satisfaction. This work will prove critical to Nevada providers as Medicare reimbursements soon will be based in part on how organizations fare in patient satisfaction.

Recently, the "aha" moment -- the moment I knew the impact that the work at UNLV could have in health care -- came when I was working with the division chief of a medical center on managing capacity constraints. Rather than buying more radiology equipment, I suggested using the techniques that hotels have used for years use to meet demand during peak times. Prime times could be saved for the patients with the highest needs. Those with more flexibility could be scheduled during low-volume times. And wait times could be reduced.

He was skeptical, but we kept discussing it, and I shared my research on revenue management, along with other research, with him. He soon wrote back, "I think this could be a savior of my hospital." And I believed more firmly than ever that the intersection of health care and hospitality could be a driver of Nevada's economy.