By asking its customers what they wanted and then giving it to them--giving it all to them--Griffin Hospital radically reformed its culture in a change-allergic industry

Looking spiffy in a white jacket, Charlie is getting ready to perform rounds at Griffin Hospital. He's adhered to the basic standards expected of hospital staffers: he's freshly bathed; his teeth have been brushed. But Griffin is a bit more demanding of its caregivers than some hospitals are, so Charlie has also been carefully appraised by his supervisors for both disposition and height. Height is a concern because if Charlie were too short, patients would have to lean out of bed to reach him; too tall and he'd be frightening. But Charlie, who happens to be a dog, is just tall enough to place his slightly moist muzzle on the edge of a bed for convenient, nonthreatening petting.

A few obvious questions probably spring to mind. But let's just skip them for now, and instead simply note that Charlie is by no means the oddest thing you'll see at Griffin Hospital. In fact, it's hard to know where to begin or end, oddity-wise. The music in the parking lot? The double beds? The magic act in the patient lounge? The banana muffins baking in one of the cozy kitchens found on every wing of every floor?

Businesses routinely embark on grand campaigns to satisfy the customer, to please the customer, and in the most recent escalation, to delight the customer. But delighting customers is easier said than done, as will be revealed by a quick check of your own delight level the next time you're in the middle of a business transaction. Imagine, then, what it would be like if the customers you were supposed to be delighting were widely considered the most inherently miserable ones around. Further imagine that you had to do all this delighting while changes in your industry were sucking per-customer revenues down a black hole--and while far bigger and better-heeled competitors were frantically merging with similar companies to create far, far bigger and better-heeled competitors that were hell-bent on stealing market share away from you.

In other words, imagine you were a community hospital.

How, then, to explain the fact that at Griffin, which serves a mix of the modestly white collar and the working-class ethnic in south central Connecticut, patient satisfaction has soared to 96%--an astounding level in any industry, and one that's almost unheard of in the hospital business? Not coincidentally, Griffin has boosted admissions an average of 2% a year over the past four years, with healthy revenues and cash flow--and all while being within coughing distance of no fewer than seven fiercely competing hospitals, including the world-renowned Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Griffin's secret? A clear, three-step recipe that any organization can follow to similar success. First, cultivate a decade-long obsession with reconceptualizing every element of the business around customers' desires. Second, implement the resulting insights with the sort of thoroughness and attention to detail usually reserved for, say, manned space flight. And finally, be really, really nice. All the time. To everyone.

But if Griffin's journey has proved just how basic the formula for real business transformation is, it has also demonstrated why most companies attempting even a modest metamorphosis usually fall short. Qualities that most managers would consider the building blocks of a successful business--stability, reasonable compromise, moderation, careful prioritization--are also the very qualities that forestall radical, lasting change. What Griffin's homegrown, do-it-yourself makeover suggests is that it is extreme, uncompromising behavior--in Griffin's case, extreme common sense--that makes real change possible.

For nearly 80 years, nonprofit Griffin Hospital had been able to count on the steady patronage of the citizens of Derby, Conn., where it's located, and the surrounding towns. It was a population bound by tradition and by its dependence on the gritty rubber and metal mills that were the core of the community's economy. But in 1985 a new highway joining two of the state's main commuter routes passed right through town, and suddenly Derby was just a convenient commute away from New York City, Hartford, and other faster-paced, more affluent locales. Factories closed, and companies like Tetley Tea and Pitney Bowes moved in. Over a period of four years, housing prices tripled as many old-time residents sold out to young corporate marrieds.

And Griffin started losing patients at an alarming rate. The newcomers all seemed willing to travel 10 or even 30 miles to be cared for by Griffin's competitors. To find out why, Griffin commissioned a survey of local residents. More than a quarter of the respondents labeled Griffin a hospital "they would avoid." The reasons given: the medical staff was lacking, the facilities were shabby, the parking was inadequate. Oddly enough, many of the people who leveled the harshest criticisms also noted they had never so much as driven by the hospital. "How did they know parking was a problem if they had never even been here?" asks Bill Powanda, vice-president of support services. "We realized the sort of effect that word of mouth was having." (Powanda's life has been so linked with Griffin's history that he can actually say he was born in his office--the space he occupies was once part of the maternity ward.)

In 1987, when Powanda was starting to ponder the question of how to counter the hospital's bad rep, his father-in-law was admitted to Griffin with terminal stomach cancer and a bleeding ulcer. Right at the unfortunate man's bedside, the doctor told Powanda and the rest of the family that the ulcer was inoperable, and the appropriate thing to do was to stop the blood transfusions that were barely keeping him alive and let him die. Powanda's father-in-law suddenly spoke up. "Is it OK if I have something to say about this?" he asked. Everyone looked at him. "I'd rather die on the operating table, if you don't mind." Suit yourself, the doctor told him. The operation was surprisingly successful, and though the man died 18 months later, he went home to his family that next week, feeling well.

At about the same time, another vice-president at Griffin was in a serious car accident and was hospitalized for nearly three months in Hartford. Meanwhile, the wife of Griffin's then CEO, John Bustelos, went into a diabetic coma and died at Griffin; a Griffin vice-president lost a breast to cancer; and the father of then Griffin assistant administrator Patrick Charmel--Charmel is now Griffin's CEO--suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized on Long Island.

When the executive staff members were finally back mulling over Griffin's image problem, they happened to compare notes on their personal run-ins with the medical establishment. They reached an immediate consensus: hospital experiences were significantly more unpleasant than they ought to be. To figure out how Griffin could do better, and maybe win new patients out of it, they decided to go back to their potential customers for more detailed research.

But which customers? Griffin's board wanted the executives to focus on geriatrics, noting that the population was aging. But Charmel, then a rangy, softspoken but direct 27-year-old who essentially ran the hospital's day-to-day operations while CEO Bustelos focused on starting up a Griffin health-maintenance organization, had his eye on obstetrics and maternity. "I figured we should catch them while they're young," says Charmel. "Then we'd automatically get them later, when they're old." The board gave in.

Griffin passed out detailed questionnaires to its obstetrics patients, as well as to new and expectant mothers who had chosen to use other hospitals, and ran focus groups. After a few months the executives had assembled an impressive maternity wish list. For example, not only did mothers want their husbands there during delivery, but many wanted their children and their own parents in the birthing room, too. They wanted rooms that didn't look like hospital rooms. They wanted double beds, so their husbands--or whoever--could sleep next to them. They wanted Jacuzzis. They wanted big windows and skylights. They wanted fresh flowers. They wanted big, comfortable lounges where the family could gather. They wanted nurses who paid close attention to them and doctors who followed up on problems.

Now it was time to draw up plans. "We knew what our customers wanted," says Powanda. "So we figured all we had to do was find a hospital that offered these things, and then just imitate it." Charmel had one of the female managers stuff a pillow under her dress, and the two of them visited every obstetrics and maternity ward within an hour's drive, posing as expectant parents who wanted to tour the facilities. At the same time, other managers searched through industry literature to identify the half dozen or so hospitals in the country with the best delivery and maternity reputation, and then flew out to visit them. Then the team members gathered again to compare notes and select the hospital that would serve as their template for customer satisfaction. The winner was...nobody. "So we decided we'd build it ourselves," says Powanda.

It seemed obvious to everyone involved that the first step should be to prioritize the wish list and winnow it down. After all, some of the ideas, like allowing children in delivery rooms, seemed goofy. Some, like skylights, seemed frivolous. Some, like Jacuzzis, seemed downright dangerous--since any obstetrician could tell you that bathing during labor carried a risk of infection. As for double-size hospital beds--well, they didn't even exist. And how was the hospital supposed to change the behavior of doctors and nurses, who tend to be fiercely protective of their routines? The team had the various ideas written out on flip charts around the room, and they were arguing and crossing out, then arguing some more and crossing out some more. Suddenly, Charmel spoke up. "Why are we doing this?" he said. "We asked them what they wanted, and they told us. Now let's just give it to them."

After a stunned pause, someone said, "You mean, all of it?"

"Yeah," said Charmel. "All of it."

The new obstetrics and maternity unit opened in 1987. It had rooms where families could gather. It had fresh flowers. It had skylights. It had a Jacuzzi. (Research revealed that the concern over infection was a myth.) It had custom-built double beds. It had birthing-helper classes for children and grandparents. And it had "primary-care nursing"--each patient was the responsibility of a single nurse who would make sure that all the patient's needs were met and that the doctors were taking care of business.

Patient response was immediate and enthusiastic. But some of the nurses complained to Charmel when a swarm of family and friends took over one of the communal rooms for pizza parties or late-night card games. "Excellent," replied Charmel. "That's what the room is there for." Some staffers complained when a husband got off the late shift at the factory, headed over to the ward, and climbed into the double bed with his wife, waking up mother and baby. "What's going to happen when we discharge her tomorrow?" replied Charmel. "He's going to come home from the late shift and wake his wife and baby up. As long as they're not complaining, we might as well let them get used to it here." Several of the obstetricians, meanwhile, grumbled about having to be at the beck and call of patients.

Obstetrics admissions doubled over the next few years. And along the way, not only did most of the nurses get used to the extra demands of the wing, but they started to like them. Turnover among the nursing staff, always a problem at Griffin, started to drop. And the nurses were even taking it upon themselves to find more ways to cater to the patients. For example, they came up with a program that offers a free exam of mother and baby back at the hospital three days after discharge--or at the mom's own home, should a hospital return be inconvenient. Ninety-six percent of mothers were soon availing themselves of that exam, and in one-third of the cases a nurse identified a problem that might have otherwise gone untreated, such as jaundice or lactation difficulties. Perhaps most amazing of all, only a small percentage of the patients asked to have a nurse come to their homes to conduct the exam; they all seemed perfectly happy to drop back by the hospital.

Some of the obstetricians never did get used to the new order, however, and they moved on. In the past, such doctor vacancies were crises for Griffin because of the difficulty in attracting good physicians to a tired, old-fashioned facility. But now the hospital found that top-notch obstetricians, including younger and female doctors often favored by expectant mothers, were actively seeking Griffin out. What's more, because the new unit's philosophy was clearly established, the doctors who signed on tended to be physicians who preferred working in this new "patient driven" model. "Our environment was becoming a recruiting tool," notes Lynn Werdal, vice-president of patient-care services.

None of which meant that Charmel's next suggestion didn't come as a surprise when he threw it out to the executive team, in 1990.

"Can we build an entire hospital like this?" he asked.

Yes. They could.

As I stand at the edge of the Griffin Hospital parking lot, listening to the classical music being piped through nearby loudspeakers, someone approaches and cheerily asks if I've forgotten where I've parked. This is Phil Landona, an outgoing, middle-aged man who serves as a parking-lot guard and, given that he's often the first Griffin staff person a patient sees, as a general putter-at-ease. He often personally leads people into the hospital and then back to their car when they leave. He strikes up an easy conversation before wishing me a good day.

No matter how much you've been warned that Griffin doesn't look like an ordinary hospital, or how carefully you've followed directions inside, or even if Landona has personally led you by the elbow, you can't help wondering if you've made a mistake when you enter Griffin's lobby. Think of the lobby of a high-powered law firm: expensive-looking wood; curving, sophisticated structures; and an energetic, pleasant, and efficient-looking young receptionist sitting alone behind a massive desk, smiling at you as if you were the moneyed, tough-to-please client whose arrival the firm has been frantically preparing for over the course of weeks.

Speaking up a little to be heard over the near-concert-quality player piano that's running through a light jazz number off to the side, I tell the receptionist the name of the person I'm there to see, and she enthusiastically suggests that I simply keep walking straight ahead down the one corridor leading out of the lobby until I come to the central registration area. As I walk along the handsomely appointed hallway, I notice there are no signs on the wall to direct me to any of the various wings or specialties. At the central registration area, which resembles a bank president's waiting room, I ask a man in a suit to direct me to an office. "Sure, follow me," he says.

This is pretty much the experience any patient has when he or she shows up at Griffin. The outer lobby and central registration area act as a pleasant funnel in which it is virtually impossible to become lost or to avoid being greeted. Once you've registered, someone will lead you to the appropriate wing--it's not good enough to merely give you directions. Pointing is actually banned in hallways. All this, of course, is in place of the more common experience of entering a crowded, noisy, disorienting lobby and trying to follow signs to a particular ward. "No one's going to give you high marks for having good signage," explains Powanda. "Being taken to your unit by a person is something you remember."

Throughout the hospital, corridors are generously trimmed in maple and nicely carpeted (special wheel bearings were brought in to keep gurneys from bogging down in the thick pile), and they feature warm, indirect lighting. There are no gurneys, wheelchairs, crash carts, or food-tray dollies lining the corridors. There are no public-address-system pages or announcements or gongs. "Pat hates noise and clutter," says one nurse, "Pat" being Charmel. "He gets really annoyed if he sees a piece of equipment sitting outside a room."

The rooms are furnished at a level of taste and comfort roughly equal to that of a typical upper-middle-class hotel. Some rooms are outsized, with couches that fold into double beds. Those are the "care partner" rooms, in which family members who help provide care are allowed to stay with the patient. None of the rooms is more than a dozen feet or so from a nurses' station.

Nor are they more than 100 feet or so from a well-stocked, home-style kitchen open to all patients and visitors 24 hours a day. Sometimes patients cook as a sort of therapy; one patient who was a chef cooked dozens of complete Thanksgiving dinners while waiting for his appointment with surgery. Some families gather in the kitchen, put on a pot of coffee, and then make life-and-death decisions that somehow would be that much harder in a hospital room or hallway or lounge.

Everywhere you turn at Griffin you see similar unhospital-like touches--touches that were mostly inspired by ideas solicited from Griffin's customers. But remaking the hospital at large to suit the needs and whims of its customers was a task on a different scale from that of redoing the maternity wing.

In a way, Griffin had been cherry-picking when it focused on maternity--that is, it had selected the easiest target, the one most likely to meet with success. After all, expectant mothers tend to be young, robust, and upbeat. They generally aren't actually ill, are in the hospital for only a few days, don't require extensive treatment, and tend to provide good revenues, relative to what they cost the hospital.

Providing an emotionally satisfying, minimally inconvenient experience to a broad population is a different story. Patients are typically senior citizens who can be hard to please under the best of circumstances, let alone when they're suffering from heart attacks, having parts of their bodies removed, or fighting for breath through failing lungs. Nevertheless, the Griffin team again prepared community surveys and focus groups to determine what it would take to make people in that age group like a hospital.

Again, the resulting wish list was staggering. They wanted nice furniture. They wanted kitchens. They wanted carpeting. They wanted nurses by their beds essentially all the time--it turned out that elderly patients often pressed the call button not because anything was wrong but just to make sure someone was out there just in case. They wanted unlimited visits at any time from anyone and everyone. They wanted their pets to visit. They wanted spouses or family members to have beds to sleep in right there in the room with them and help take care of them. And they wanted a better understanding of what was happening to them, medically speaking.

Again, Charmel said, Let's do it. The hospital was operating in a 60-year-old building that hadn't been renovated since 1969; it was due for a new building. Why not design it to meet all these newly identified needs?

Extensive community-hospital building projects need approval from a state commission, and the commission literally laughed in Charmel's face when he told its members how he wanted to spend some of the money. But the commission finally agreed to let Griffin do what it wanted, as long as it did it for no more than the average cost of adding on a similar-sized conventional hospital building--about $145 a square foot. "To do this right, we had to go first-class on everything," recalls Powanda. "We just had to find a way to go first-class really cheaply."

It threatened to be slow going. Simply coming up with a basic layout for the new rooms, normally a boilerplate sort of process, turned out to be a painstaking experience. The design not only had to meet patient demands for a homey, nonthreatening feel but also had to accommodate medical equipment and extensive gas and plumbing fixtures, and provide convenient access and movement to nurses, technicians, and the housekeeping staff, along with their equipment. The management team and the project architects sketched ideas, then employed a computer-aided-design system, then played around with cardboard models, and finally built a full-scale mock-up of a hospital room in a warehouse across the street from the hospital. Hundreds of patients, staff members, technicians, builders, and board members paraded through the room, each one carrying a "ticket" with which to submit ideas for modifications. "We must have moved the sink six times," recalls Charmel.

Charmel personally picked out furniture, favoring warm, semicontemporary wooden designs. He even selected the hospital's trash cans. "I'm usually pretty hands-off with my staff," he says. "I feel I'm just here to listen to their problems and help get obstacles out of their way. But sometimes I do get obsessed with certain details." And with bargain hunting, too: after he had found the designs he liked and purchased one of each from area stores, he had them all stuffed into vans and brought to furniture manufacturers in Pennsylvania to get them knocked off at about a third of the retail price.

No detail seemed too unimportant to fuss over. Handrails were tried out in a bewildering variety of materials, shapes, and heights. "You'd be amazed at the difference a slight adjustment could make in a patient's impression," says Charmel. Hospitals almost always go with stainless steel, but Charmel insisted on wood for its added warmth--not to mention the fact that it cost less. Fluorescent lighting was banned. "It makes people look sick," explains Powanda. "Patients already look sick."

When executives told focus groups they were planning on going with all private rooms, they expected nothing short of applause. But senior citizens sometimes frowned at the news. Under closer questioning, some of them--especially those who lived alone--confessed that for them, having a roommate was one of the few perks of a hospital stay. OK, asked the team, what if we had some double rooms for those who wanted them? More frowns--they didn't like the lack of privacy in double rooms. But didn't they just say they didn't want privacy? No, replied the senior citizens; they said they wanted the companionship of a roommate, not a lack of privacy. And while you're at it, they said, make sure nurses don't have to walk by our beds to get to our roommates' beds, and that we don't have to cross by our roommates to get to the bathroom, and that we don't end up staring at a wall while our roommates get a nice window view. "The politics of double rooms can get kind of complicated," notes Charmel.

Impossible seemed more like it. No one could think of a way to design a double room that met all those criteria. But one manager spotted a peculiar double room in a trade journal, went to check it out while vacationing in Florida, and upon his return excitedly described the room he'd seen: L-shaped, with the two beds arranged at right angles to each other, each along one of the two limbs of the L. Because the room entrance and bathroom were located at the bend of the L--the entrance on the outer bend and the bathroom on the inner--caregivers could enter and walk directly to either bed, and neither patient would have to walk by the other to get to the bathroom. The patients' views of one another were partially blocked by the outside walls of the bathroom, which jut into the room somewhat. Fiddling around with the layout, the team hit on the idea of placing cabinetry at the bend that further blocked the patients' views of each other, as long as one or both beds were in the flat position, offering privacy. But if both patients felt like a little companionship, they could raise the heads of their beds, angling themselves forward enough to visually clear the obstructions and see each other. Unfortunately, putting a window at both ends of the room was out of the question; there would have to be a single window in only one patient's half of the room. But the team figured out a compromise of sorts. If they placed the window directly alongside one of the beds, then the patient in that bed would be close to the window but would have to turn to the side to see it, while the patient in the other bed would be farther from the window but would have a straight-ahead view of it. When the full-scale mock-up was tested, it got a thumbs-up.

What to do about giving patients better access to nurses? In almost all hospitals, every wing has a central nurses' station, which typically means that some patients are located the hospital equivalent of a block away, which raises their anxiety. The solution: abolishing the central station and instead creating individual nurse workstations around which four rooms are arranged, fanlike. That way, each patient can look out along his or her bed and see the primary-care nurse sitting some 15 feet away. Some of the nurses objected, insisting they needed to be near other nurses to constantly share information and just to socialize to ease the pressure of the job. But Lynn Werdal wasn't having any of it. "Hospitals had always been arranged around the caregivers' needs," she says. "But this was all about the patients' needs."

Still, Charmel and the team wondered, could the very nature of nursing and doctoring--that is, the culture of medicine--be changed to suit patients?

When people say hospital environments can be highly infectious, they usually mean it in a bad way. Not in the case of Griffin. Dropping by one of the kitchens is a good way to see why.

Baking muffins in the oncology-unit kitchen today is Maureen Bolde, a senior citizen who regularly volunteers to come by and do what she can for the patients. "When my husband was alive, he was sick here, and the nurses were so wonderful to us, I could never pay them back," she says. She tells the story of the time one of the nurses asked her if she knew how to change her husband's dressing. She told the nurse she had done it several times. Show me, the nurse said. At first, Bolde thought the nurse hadn't believed her and wanted her to prove that she could do it correctly. But then she realized the nurse was watching so she could learn and imitate Bolde's technique--the nurse felt that having different styles of dressing might make the man uncomfortable.

Bolde is one of 400 regular volunteers, all of whom feel pretty much the same way she does about Griffin. Some lead patients to rooms. Some hold their hands before and after surgery, and in some cases during surgery. Some staff a "room service" program and run around meeting requests for snacks, books, videos, slippers, and anything else a patient cares to ask for. A volunteer once fielded a call from a patient who had been rushed to the hospital on April 14: Would the volunteer mind getting the patient's tax forms from her car and bringing them to her accountant across town? The forms were filed on time.

Patients, predictably, are high on Griffin. John DelPrete, a 28-year-old small-engine mechanic and Derby resident who bears an extraordinary resemblance to the late comedian Chris Farley, is sitting in a lounge, about to be discharged after battling back from a blood-platelet disorder. "The last time I was in a hospital," he says, "I was five years old, and my parents couldn't see me until they got off work, and then the nurses made them leave at 8. This time my best friend got off work after midnight, and he was here until 3 a.m. It was great."

DelPrete says he used to be uncomfortable thinking about illness, his or anyone else's. "I was the biggest guy on the football team, but I passed out at the sight of a needle," he says. But, like all Griffin patients, he was encouraged to look over his charts, was offered literature about his illness, and took part in a detailed "case conference" the day after his admission, in which nurses and doctors discussed where he stood now, what tests needed to be performed, what was likely to happen based on the test results, when he could expect to leave, and what might happen in the coming months and years. Now DelPrete matter-of-factly quotes the rise and fall of his platelet count over each of the last few days as if he were an intern. "My nurse, Jane, gave me a real positive attitude," he says. "Now I see the light about taking care of myself." He nods with his chin at the corner of the lounge where his three-year-old-daughter, Alexandra, is playing.

Praise also goes to the large health-resource center, open to the public, which has medical books aimed at laypeople and computers linked to health-related Web sites. The medical library where doctors do their research is adjacent to the resource center and is open to the public, so it's possible to find patients and visitors sitting next to doctors, leafing through medical journals. And though state regulations require too many shots and grooming procedures to make it feasible for patients to receive visits from their pets, Griffin has brought a half dozen or so dogs like Charlie up to code to soak up patients' surplus affection.

Patients point out that they are constantly being bombarded by unexpected acts of kindness. "I ran into someone from our environmental [housekeeping] staff today wheeling a patient down the hall," says Werdal. "She had seen him sitting there, so she just left her work, took over, and brought him to where he needed to go. Every employee of this hospital is considered a caregiver, whether they're processing bills in accounting or cleaning labs."

Most of the resistance to Griffin's openness with information has long since faded among the medical staff. "A lot of doctors thought that letting patients see their charts would lead to lawsuits," says Dr. Kenneth Schwartz, Griffin's medical director. "But we haven't had a single bad experience that's come out of it." Werdal recalls the time a patient was due in one of the labs for an echocardiogram but didn't feel well enough to be moved. "The nurse in the lab just decided to wheel the machine down to his room and do it there, even though no one had ever done that before," she says. "She didn't feel she had to ask my or anyone's permission, and I like that."

Charmel and the rest of his team refuse to stand still. Though its reputation for sheer pleasantness is attracting a growing number of patients from outside the immediate community, Griffin is aiming for a national market by establishing niche services within the hospital. One of those is a comprehensive pain- and headache-treatment center, in which, among other things, tiny pumps are surgically implanted next to patients' spines to provide a steady, measured flow of narcotics. Another is a hyperbaric wound-treatment center, where patients are placed in high-pressure, high-oxygen tanks that speed the healing of difficult wounds. Perhaps most remarkably, Griffin has even managed to construct an intensive-care unit that provides virtually all the same patient-wish-list items, including private rooms that are only slightly less hotel-like than the ordinary ones. To keep patients accessible to visitors without restricting doctors' ability to rush in for emergencies, for example, each room provides a door at opposite ends: one that opens onto a nurses' station and the other opening into a lounge area from which family and friends can enter anytime they wish, day or night.

In the view of Charmel and his team, such relentlessness in continuing to drive change through every aspect of Griffin's world is not overkill. It's a fundamental requirement, the alternative being an inevitable backsliding into compromise and convention. In Charmel's eyes, there is no middle ground to transformation: you either take it to a wild extreme and never stop pushing the envelope, or you fail altogether.

Griffin's managers are also looking to boost revenues by turning some of the hospital's practices into products. Last year Griffin formally absorbed Planetree--a seminal-but-failing consultancy that promoted health-care ideas like those developed at Griffin--by acquiring its debts, and the hospital now plans to quickly implement Planetree's agenda. Michael Gaeta, a former alternative-health-care consultant whom Charmel has put in charge of Planetree, says he's already begun aggressively promoting the organization's services to other hospitals in the United States and even around the world. With a $100,000 marketing budget--up from Planetree's previous allocation of a few hundred dollars for photocopying--Gaeta has produced slick brochures and videos and is constantly leading delegations of visiting hospital staffers around Griffin. In the first six months after the acquisition, Gaeta signed up four new hospitals as Planetree affiliates, each of which paid $20,000 for the first year of membership and then $15,000 a year thereafter. Griffin has also started selling how-to videos to other hospitals, such as one on how to set up a volunteer-based room-service program, which sells for $300.

What's next? Charmel won't speculate on more distant plans, but one Planetree consultant notes that when she travels with some of the Griffin crew, they often end up noting, in a half-joking way, that airports sure could use some humanizing. "But," she quickly adds, "there's still a lot of work left to do in health care."

David H. Freedman is a contributing writer at Inc.