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Publicity Windfall for Health Care Giant : Humana Finds Transplant 'Halo Effect'

January 04, 1987|JANNY SCOTT

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When Humana Inc. decided to build a new headquarters four years ago, it hired one of the most famous post-modernist architects in the country. It imported granite from Angola and marble from Italy and gold leaf to stud the 27-story pink granite exterior.

It built a 50-foot waterfall cascading down the facade. It installed elevators like jewelry boxes, all bird's-eye maple and mahogany. For interior decor, it brought in sculptures by Picasso and Henry Moore, and two 2nd-Century Roman goddesses--the goddesses of health and fortune.

Then Humana recorded the entire process in a nine-projector slide show titled "Adventure in Excellence." As one tour guide tells it, during 2 1/2 years of construction, a time-lapse camera installed nearby shot the building every 45 minutes.

The folks at Humana know a thing or two about image.

Now the $3.6-billion-a-year private health-care giant is reaping the benefit of the greatest image builder of all: its offer in 1984 to foot the bill for the next 100 artificial heart implants by heart pioneer Dr. William C. DeVries.

In the first three months after the November, 1984, implant of William Schroeder, Humana's name rang out nightly on network television news. According to an independent poll done for the trade magazine, Modern Health Care, Humana's name recognition nationwide jumped in three months from imperceptible to 16%.

'A Halo Effect'

Humana officials insist that they have never used the artificial heart for advertising, and have done no market research to gauge its impact on perceptions of the company. But through less-tangible means, said a senior manager for public affairs, Thomas Noland, "You can safely say that what we have discovered is a halo effect."

From the beginning, Humana has said it got into artificial-heart research to make its Humana Heart Institute "a very, very top center of excellence in cardiovascular surgery," as President Wendell Cherry recently put it. Humana also hoped to show that in times of 1684366188research, for-profit corporations would take up the slack.

Humana officials decline to say how much has been spent on the program, fearing that the figures will be "misconstrued" to represent the cost of simply having an artificial heart implant. Although DeVries donates his time on the artificial heart cases, Humana pays for support staff, facilities, equipment and hospital costs.

(DeVries is part of a seven-member surgical group that receives fees for other heart operations.)

In the case of patient Murray Haydon alone, that included the better part of 488 days spent in intensive care. William Schroeder lived 620 days, most of them in Humana Hospital-Audubon. The University of Utah spent $250,000 on the first heart patient, dentist Barney Clark, who lived 112 days after his transplant.

"We've never had a second thought about it," Cherry said, ensconced at a large, round table the color of soft caramel, just through the door from a Henry Moore reclining nude. "None whatsoever. There's no basis for us to have a second thought."

But Humana's involvement has been controversial.

Objectivity Questioned

Critics in academic medicine and elsewhere have called the move a publicity stunt, a gimmick, "pure marketing strategy." Ethicists have questioned the objectivity of the internal board overseeing clinical experimentation at Humana Hospital-Audubon, where DeVries works. For example, Dr. George Annas, professor of health law at Boston University, told a congressional committee in February that Humana board members contended that DeVries' heart implant operation should not be regarded as experimental.

Some have also faulted DeVries for failing to publish his findings in what they claim would have been a timely manner. There would have been more pressure to publish in a publicly funded institution, they say, such as the University of Utah, which he left.

Cherry dismisses much of the criticism as specious--the grumblings of academics irked by a loss of jurisdiction.

"I have no question that there is what I call institutional turf fighting going on," he said. "It's covered by ethical concerns and all that. That's all, to me, a mirage. It's camouflage for the real issue.

"They're debating that they'd rather have it somewhere else," he said. "They haven't even attempted to make a case about the competence, the capability, certainly not the financial support of it. They've made no case, because they can't make a case."

From Humana's viewpoint, the gains far outweigh any losses.

As DeVries' wife, Karen, observed: "Even if it fails, Humana wins. Bill has tried to beat death--publicly. And he's put his career on the line."

Added DeVries himself, referring to Humana, "It's the old bit: I don't care what you say about me, just spell my name right."

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