After Ben Miller had spinal surgery for scoliosis at Shriners Hospital for Children, he couldn't endure the eight hours of sitting that the trip back home to Northern California would require.
Instead, for nine days after his midwinter release from the hospital, 12-year-old Ben stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia under a new program, believed to be the first in the country, designed to help with his recovery.
A medical concierge at the hotel tended to Ben's every need: an additional full-size bed and a wheelchair; his favorite dessert, banana creme brulee; and a private tour of City Hall, to name a few.
"They took more than good care of me," the seventh grader said by phone from home last month. "They treated me like a god."
The Ritz-Carlton's medical-concierge program, now expanded after a trial run to include hospitals and medical facilities throughout the Philadelphia area, aims to provide a pampering bridge between the hospital room and the patient's home.
The concierge does not perform medical procedures or administer drugs.
Rather, say hotel and patient-referral officials at local hospitals, the program offers such services as wake-up calls for medical appointments, transportation to and from doctors' offices, special sleep arrangements, custom dietary options, prescription pickups, even babysitting services for pets or children.
All services are a la carte, added to a guest's final bill much as an in-room movie would be. Whether specific services are covered by health insurance is up to the guest's provider. (Rooms at the Ritz-Carlton cost from $189 to $699 a night.)
Philadelphia, with its abundance of internationally recognized hospitals, was a natural fit for the hotel chain's pilot program, said Michael Walsh, general manager of the city's Ritz-Carlton.
"Even when people are cutting back, we felt this was an area that they don't cut corners," Walsh said. "People don't mess around with their health."
Hotel analysts say the medical-concierge idea is the latest competitive strategy for luxury hotels, which boast of having the best of everything.
"With the crowd that wants the full service, this is probably a good amenity that Ritz-Carlton can offer," said C. Patrick Scholes, senior lodging analyst with FBR Capital Markets Corp. "Many people like luxury . . . and a certain segment will pay for it. It's a good match."
About 30 guests have availed themselves of the medical concierge thus far, said Kimberly Pegg, sales manager for the program at the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia.
In December, she said, local health facilities such as Hahnemann, Jefferson, Children's Hospital of Pennsylvania, Cooper University Medical Center, and Cancer Centers of America participated in a focus group on what patients wanted most from a medical concierge.
No physician's note is necessary for guests to request the medical concierge's services. But hospitals can, and do, provide instructions for care at the hotel, both before and after hospitalization.
Cheryl Boberick, director of patient-facilitated services at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and a registered nurse, said she saw good results from the Ritz-Carlton program. HUP was among a handful of hospitals that took part in its trial run.
In December, Boberick said, she referred a 71-year-old metastatic-cancer patient from New England to the medical concierge for the duration of his treatment.
The man, who lives alone, was receiving weekly chemotherapy and daily radiation treatments, Boberick said, and he worried about how he would take care of himself and who would be available to help him if he returned home during the treatments.
Ritz-Carlton's Pegg was advised that the patient needed high-protein shakes and small, frequent meals throughout the day because he was losing weight during treatment, and that everything the man ate should be tracked, Boberick said. In case complications arose, Pegg was given a list of physicians and nurse practitioners to contact at HUP, and the medical concierge provided access to round-the-clock supervision.
The man completed cancer treatment two weeks ago and is doing remarkably well, Boberick said.
"The healing atmosphere and attention he received, I believe, really helped him heal and recover," she said.
If the medical-concierge program takes off here, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. plans to expand it nationally and abroad. There are 70 Ritz-Carltons worldwide, 38 in the United States.
Just how much profit the program might generate for the Philadelphia hotel is unclear, Pegg said, noting that medical-concierge services can be a less-expensive option for out-of-town patients who must recover somewhat before traveling.
"We have no expectations on the return to the hotel," she said. "We want most importantly a 'return' for the guest."
Lori Hockman, who used the Ritz-Carlton's medical concierge last year after a face-lift, will be returning in early June for a follow-up consultation with her plastic surgeon, Louis Bucky.
After her surgery, Hockman got the full-service concierge treatment, which she described as a 50th-birthday present to herself.
A bandaged Hockman was picked up by the hotel and whisked through its side entrance on South Penn Street to avoid the crowds. A nurse from Bucky's office stayed at her side through the night.
"I did not have to worry about taking care of myself," Hockman said. "They took care of everything."
For her next stay, Hockman has requested, among other things: prescription pickup; a nurse; a therapeutic message; diet ginger ale, saltine crackers, and chicken broth in her room; and someone to take care of her dog, which will be coming with her.
Also returning to the Ritz-Carlton will be Ben Miller, who is scheduled for follow-up surgery in September at Shriners Hospital, said his mother, Susan Miller.
"For a child [going] through surgery far from home to be welcomed and treated like royalty made the difference for him," she said. "To us, it's better than going home."