Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Breast cancer. Diabetes. Stroke. These probably don't rank very high on your list of dinner conversation topics, but at hospitals nationwide they are seemingly big lures for current and prospective patients.

Central DuPage Hospital in suburban Chicago attracts between 80 and 200 people for its "Dinner with the Doc" series. The evenings consist of a free dinner, a lecture by a CDH physician and a question-and-answer session.

"The content must be relevant and compelling, the physicians must be engaging and approachable, the venues must be convenient and comfortable, and everyone has to eat dinner," says Tammy Pressley, director of community and government affairs at CDH. "By providing dinner, the educational setting becomes more intimate."

The hospital has been running its dinner series since fall 2006. Lectures are offered on Wednesday about 34 weeks per year, with an annual budget of roughly $160,000.

"Dinner with the Doc" programs accomplish a couple of goals for hospitals: not only can they build rapport with existing and prospective patients, they also help get patients more engaged in the care process.

"Prevention plays a big role," says Steven Clark, an independent public relations consultant who coordinates a dinner program for St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, as well as at other hospitals. In early June, St. Barnabas hosted a dinner about reducing stroke risks. The hospital has been sponsoring the dinner-lecture series since 2009 and has hit on everything from sleep disorders to heart care. To meet the community's diverse needs, presentations are made in Albanian, English, Spanish and other languages.

Patients who often feel rushed in a doctor's office can ask general questions, and the physician can give a broad overview without the time constraints of a busy practice, says Denise Pitts, director of public affairs and marketing at Lansdale (Pa.) Hospital.

Creating opportunities for better patient education and engagement in managing chronic illnesses can go a long way toward improving the overall patient experience, which will become much more vital under Medicare's value-based purchasing regulation that will tie a percentage of Medicare payments to patient-engagement scores.

"We do see organizations placing greater emphasis on both patient satisfaction and loyalty," says Deirdre Mylod, vice president of hospital services at Press Ganey. "Tough economic times make markets even more competitive."

Pressley says CDH conducts an evaluation after each dinner to assess the program's impact "of learning that has occurred and intended behavior change."