Where can you get a bowl of seaweed soup or a plate of tabouli when you're in the hospital? In more places than you might think.

Los Angeles hospitals in a time of pinched profits, increased competition and rising costs are paying extra attention to the customs and beliefs of local ethnic communities in an effort to increase business and attract patients.

"Sixty percent of hospitals in California and Los Angeles County are operating in the red," said James Lott, executive vice president of the Healthcare Association of Southern California, which represents some 200 area hospitals. "On the marketing side, most hospitals will make certain they have both the hands-on and linguistic competencies in their cultural market area. That is just good business sense."

That's why Good Samaritan Hospital, which sits on the edge of Koreatown, integrated seaweed soup into its maternity ward menu several years ago, as greater numbers of Koreans were admitted to the facility. It is a tradition in Korea for new mothers to eat the calcium-and-iodine-rich soup to speed their recovery.

In addition, almost one-third of the staff's 280 doctors speak Korean, and the hospital is always searching for Korean-speaking nurses. Most hospital signs are in both Korean and English.

With the increased sensitivity toward foreign customs, nearly 25 percent of Good Samaritan's in-patient population is Korean, up from 19 percent a few years ago. "Not many people enjoy coming to the hospital," said Andy Leeka, president and chief executive of the 408-bed, nonprofit medical facility. "We asked ourselves, 'How do we make people comfortable when they are not feeling very good?'"

The answer was to make them feel at home.

By California law, any hospital accepting Medi-Cal patients must be able to accommodate patients in 28 different languages, meaning they must have access to translators. But many hospitals have gone one step further to distinguish themselves.

"It's an extremely competitive market for a variety of reasons," said Robert Myrtle, a professor of health services administration and gerontology at USC. "Since hospitals are accredited, they appear in the eyes of many to be alike. So how do you differentiate yourself to attract business?"

At Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a kosher kitchen was set up for the large number of Jewish patients who use the facility. Last week, a Passover Seder was transmitted over the hospital's closed-circuit TV, and a kosher meal and prayer book were delivered to each Jewish patient who wanted them.

For the Asian community near downtown Los Angeles, St. Vincent Medical Center opened a 16-bed Korean Pavilion in 1997 with Korean nurses, a Korean menu and Korean artwork. It is similar to St. Vincent's 16-bed Nikkei Pavilion established in 1985 for Japanese patients.

Community involvement has been an integral part of White Memorial Medical Center's service in East L.A. Nearly 80 percent of the patients at the 375-bed nonprofit hospital are Latino, which means the majority of the staff speaks both Spanish and English. Almost all the outreach classes on diabetes, cancer, and prenatal care are in Spanish and several in-house programs have been set up with Latinos in mind, such as the Spanish-speaking breast cancer support group.

Then there is the hospital food. "The majority of the time, the hospital menu features food items geared toward the Latino community, such as rice, beans, enchiladas or tacos," said hospital spokeswoman Alicia Gonzalez.

While hospitals have been trying to attract patients by catering to their ethnic tastes, they are also trying to avoid scaring them away by committing ethnic mistakes.

At Pacific Alliance Medical Center, in the heart of Chinatown, none of the Asian newborn babies is wrapped in white a sign of death. It would be like bundling an Anglo baby in a black shroud. All the new babies are wrapped in light blue, a more neutral color, said Phyllis Van Crombrugghe, the hospital's chief operating officer.

In addition, the hospital's medical building refrains from labeling its fourth floor because the number four is considered unlucky in Chinese culture. Instead, the floor is referred to as the Lippo Bank floor, because it is occupied by Lippo Bank.

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