PARAMOUNT — The television commercial shows two children and their parents perspiring fiercely under a hot sun, their faces creased with worry.
A narrator says living in a country without a Spanish-speaking doctor is like being alone in the middle of the desert. He offers a toll-free number that spells "my health" in Spanish, saying callers will be referred to Spanish-speaking doctors near their home or work.
The commercial is part of an agressive advertising campaign launched by Charter Suburban Hospital in Paramount that targets middle-class Latinos. The advertisement is one of three similar spots aired by the hospital on Spanish-language television and radio in Southern California.
The hospital, part of a nationwide chain, said its approach is based on marketing surveys that show Latinos are its best source of revenue. Targetting that market, hospital officials said, is one way of getting their share of the increasingly competitive $360-billion national health care industry.
Charter Suburban officials say their marketing campaign is backed by a complete bilingual-bicultural program--from Spanish-speaking doctors and a policy that requires future employees to be bilingual, to waiting rooms big enough to accommodate the traditionally large Latino families.
Other area hospitals are turning to similar strategies, ranging from merely advertising to establishing broader programs that include plans for a satellite clinic in predominantly Latino Huntington Park.
Although Latino health care advocates acknowledge that badly needed bilingual/bicultural services would be welcome and that some medical agencies have done a good job providing such services, some are skeptical of health care that is marketed the way beer, cigarettes and soft drinks are sold.
Ruth Rivera, a project director for the East Los Angeles Health Task Force, a nonprofit agency that provides free or low-cost health care for Latinos, said such advertising exploits the culture and that the added bicultural services "should have been part of any hospital's plan all along."
Hospital officials said the targetting of the Latino community is no different than what hospitals do when catering to a variety of conditions ranging from alcoholism to childbirth, from athletic injuries to eating disorders. Charter also has programs aimed at smokers, diabetics and the elderly.
Charter Suburban officials maintain that they are providing quality care that is sensitive to the Latino culture. The service, they said, also eliminates dangers they have encountered when doctors and patients don't speak the same language.
"We realized that we had to be more responsible to the community," Elliot A. Sainer, executive director of the hospital, said. "We're trying to reach the greatest number of people and hook them to people who speak their language and understand their culture. It's good for the patients, the hospital and the company."
Like Charter, St. Francis Hospital in Lynwood and Beverly Hospital in Montebello are targeting their Latino populations.
Beverly Hospital, for example, plans to run ads in Spanish-language newspapers while St. Francis will advertise on Spanish-speaking radio, television or through the mail next year, spokesmen for the hospitals said.
In addition to the advertising, St. Francis is recruiting bilingual doctors, nurses and emergency room staffs and will open a walk-in clinic in Huntington Park next year. It is also offering birthing classes in Spanish, said Ricardo M. Terrones, director of the hospital's ambulatory care service.
A telephone survey of hospitals in Bellflower, Compton, Long Beach, Whittier, Huntington Park, Lynwood and Montebello indicated bilingual/bicultural services are limited, with some hospitals posting signs and offering appointment cards and medical literature in two languages, providing physician referral and asking employees who speak another language to serve as translators.
Charter Suburban, formerly known as Paramount General, was built in 1971 by 11 doctors, some Latino, who wanted to serve that area. In 1980, the hospital was leased to the Charter Medical Corp., based in Macon, Ga., which operates 64 hospitals nationwide, including six in Los Angeles County.
In April, Charter Suburban decided to go fully bilingual and bicultural when an extensive marketing survey showed there are sufficient Latinos with public or private insurance to keep the hospital profitable through the turn of the century.
In April it began a 13-week ad campaign aimed at middle-class Latinos, appealing to values that give priority to the family and its security and health. Some of the advertising depicts well-dressed Latinos in attractive homes, and is placed on billboards, in Spanish-language newspapers and featured in 30,000 direct mail brochures.
The campaign, hospital officials said, is working.