HealthLeaders Media

Healthcare Marketing: In Defense of Hospital Ad Spending

Healthcare marketers should stand up and defend the value of hospital advertising.  We should not be timid or hesitant.

80407780Healthcare advertising has always been the target of criticism.  In the past few months there has been a new wave of criticism.  As healthcare reform is being discussed and debated there are some who claim reform should include a ban on advertising.  We strongly disagree!

Recently in HealthLeaders Media,  Marianne Aiello offered a defense of hospital advertising.  Although her arguments are not exhaustive, she makes a strong case in favor of hospital advertising and outlines the central principles and beliefs that support her defense. The majority of her article is reprinted here

Hospital advertising has long been an easy target, from both internal and external critics. It seems that whenever it’s time for a healthcare organization to tighten its belt, the marketing team and its budget takes the biggest hit.

And yet, the media and general public decry the fact that a hospital needs to promote itself at all.

It’s funny—for being professionals geared around boosting their organizations’ brands, hospital marketers are hard pressed to enhance their own reputations.

Every once in a while—this month, for example—a slew of media criticisms are published in short succession, reporting on the thousands or millions of dollars hospitals spend on advertising while failing to mention the percentage of the total organizational budget that it accounts for.

Normally, we grin and bear it and move on. Not this time.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently published an article dissecting its competitive healthcare market. While the reporting is balanced, it starts with a markedly negative tone by quoting Sidney Wolfe, director of the non-profit consumer advocacy group, Public Citizen.

“Hospitals seem to be spending money left and right trying to get more patients,” he said. “Absent significant costs controls, there’s nothing to stop them. It’s siphoning money away from healthcare. Advertising shouldn’t be confused with taking care of patients or improving patient care.”

I think we can all agree that his last sentence isn’t worth addressing. But in this column I will explain why, in the vast majority of hospitals, advertising and marketing spending is necessary, effective, and does not take away from quality of care.

Ads as patient education

I’ve spoken to hundreds of hospital marketers over the years. Ask any one of them the most important aspect of their marketing strategy, and each one will point to patient education.

Without targeted advertising, a patient may not know he or she can receive cancer treatment closer to home, or that his or her community medical center is holding a lecture series on diabetes management, or that his or her primary care provider now uses an online patient portal.

Marketing and advertising is “core to our mission to educate the public,” Missouri Hospital Association spokesman David Dillon told the Post-Dispatch. And I think you’ll find that most hospitals and health systems include patient education in their organization’s mission as well. It’s difficult to care for the community if they don’t know who you are, what you stand for, and the services you provide.

St. Louis University Hospital spokesperson Laura Keller told the paper that hospitals advertise for noble reasons as well as realistic ones.

“I don’t think it ever hurts to remind someone that there are lots of choices that you have if you’re dealing with a major health issue,” she says. “We need to educate the patient, and there are good messages there. On the business side, people need to understand that without money we cannot support our mission.”

The business case

The hospital advertising critics always seem to forget about the business side. Aside from staying true to their mission, hospitals need to advertise to maintain or enhance revenue flow. Even non-profit hospitals need to market to insured patients and promote high-grossing service lines so that they are able to continue to care for the uninsured.

And while some larger health systems spend what seems like large amounts of money on advertising, on average, the hospital marketing budget accounts for a tiny portion of the overall organizational budget.

“While we do spend money on marketing and advertising, far less than a penny of every dollar of our expenses goes to that and we try to be prudent in those expenses,” Bob Porter, chief strategy officer for the non-profit SSM Healthcare-St. Louis said. “For us, healthcare is a social good, not a commodity.”

Healthcare Marketing: Facebook Page Dedicated to Healthcare Gone Bad

Now consumers are encouraged to post horror stories about their medical experiences on a newly launched Facebook page.

ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize winning organization that collaborates with other media outlets for investigative journalism, has now established its “Patient Harm Community” Facebook page.  Patients can sign up and post the graphic details about their healthcare experiences gone bad.  And there is a special “files” page entitled “What to do if you’ve been harmed” which gives instructions on how to issue complaints against doctors, nurses and hospitals.

Cheryl Clark, writing for HealthLeaders Media, wrote a story about the new Facebook page.  She reports that ProPublica’s Marshall Allen, who uncovered systemic poor quality in Nevada hospitals for a 2010 series in the Las Vegas Sun called “Do No Harm”, and himself a Pulitzer finalist, explains what prompted the Facebook venture.

“For starters, he says, the one million people—a staggering number—who suffer injuries, infections, and errors in healthcare facilities across the country each year had very few places to turn for advice, until now. 
Over the years, I’ve talked to scores of patients who have been harmed while undergoing medical care, and the one thing that always struck me is the fact they feel so alone,” he says.

“When they suffer this type of harm, they complain to doctors and hospital officials and regulators, but they often don’t feel that they’re being listened to. 
I wanted to find a way to give these folks an opportunity to talk to one another, offer advice, encouragement, and comfort, and get questions answered. A lot of them are at different stages of the process of working through the things that happened to them.”

“I think for hospital leaders this would be a great place for them to put an ear to the ground, to hear what patients are really saying, and factor that in when they make decisions,” Allen says. “We created this for doctors, nurses, hospitals, and healthcare officials just as much as it was created for patients.”

This is very much a two-edged for hospital leaders and marketers.  It’s helpful to be able to actually read patients’ experiences and learn from their points of view.  And it introduces a new level of public accountability, which is also good.

However, the other edge is the page will be an invitation for patients or family members who are upset, emotional and angry to exaggerate claims without fully understanding the natural course of illness and diseases and treatment of such.  And when that happens, the hospital has very limited recourse for rebuttal or explanation due to privacy laws.

Such a site can serve a very worthwhile purpose for patients and for healthcare professionals.  But it can also be very dangerous and create more harm than it attempts to prevent.  It is a site all healthcare marketers should monitor and pay close attention to; just in case your hospital appears in one of the stories on the page, to learn from a patient’s perspective about their experiences and concerns, and to see if and how other healthcare professionals and marketers handle issues that appear there.