There is minimal oversight of hospital marketing

I am old enough to remember when physicians did not advertise. It was considered a professional ethical issue. Hospital advertising consisted of institutional “We’re here” ads.  Anything aggressive by docs or hospitals was considered bad taste… but that was before health care became as competitive as any other type of business.

I have been barraged, as have many of you, by a wave of hospital advertisements as our health care marketplaces consolidate and organizations seek to brand and differentiate themselves. We are subjected to print, radio, and TV ads extolling services, expensive technology, and that fact that each institution cares more than its competitors.

Charlie Rohlfing blogged recently about the worst in hospital advertising techniques, and you will recognize them all. They usually include a Da Vinci Robot and orthopedic surgery that will “get you back in the game.” They claim to be “state-of-the-art,” “leading edge,” or “cutting edge,” with actors playing doctors and nurses in masks.

The purpose of advertising in any industry is to expose potential customers to the services, products, and advantages of the organization or business in order to increase volume and, through competition, provide superior products at lower prices.

Nick Iannone wrote an excellent article about health care advertising, pointing out that, in the beginning of the 20th century, scientific proof became the barometer for measuring results in the medical field. Thus, in health care advertising, the traditional combination of product, price, and service isn’t strictly honored as it is for product advertising.

Hospital ad messages have two sides: one of “claims, procedures, and results,” reflecting the scientific aspect; the second is an emotional pitch, leveraging medicine as the art of healing. Hospitals do try to use objective statistics in their advertising messages when possible; their marketing messages are also part public education and confidence-building. But health care organizations commonly leverage emotional stories to show they care and that their staffs are dedicated and compassionate.

There is minimal oversight of hospital marketing compared with the active role the FDA plays guiding the direction of advertising for food and drugs. Specific advertising rules are enforced to ensure that the outcome is a better consumer understanding of a prescription drug’s risks and benefits. Homeopathic remedies and food companies are also under scrutiny by the FDA. Recently, General Mills was severely criticized for wording on its Cheerios box that states that the cereal is “heart-healthy” and could lower cholesterol by 4 percent in only six weeks. Coca-Cola has also been scolded by the FDA and sued for claims made about its VitaminWater beverages. I wonder what the FDA would say about some of our hospital marketing: Does it educate the consumer?

Potential patients are susceptible to our advertising only when they have a medical need. Women notice labor and delivery ads from hospitals only when they are planning a family. Advanced cardiac service ads are noticed by people who have a cardiac disease or have a family member who has coronary artery disease. The health care marketplace is complicated by the fact that market sensitivity is directly associated with disease prevalence. As a result, hospitals are spending more on advertising than they have in years, as they fight for market share and margins in a time of shrinking reimbursement, declining admissions, and health care consumerism.

Dwayne Waite reported that while other industries are shrinking advertising budgets, advertising spending for hospitals rose 20 percent, to $717.2 million, just in the first half of the year. This is a marked difference from 2008-2009, when marketing spend decreased 10 percent. Hospitals are increasing their investment in advertising in an attempt to differentiate themselves in a competitive environment in which patients are playing a more active role in their health care. Hospitals are marketing specific services and outpatient treatments as well as consolidations that have formed more comprehensive health systems. For most hospitals, the marketing buy is $1.3 million to $6 million annually. This expense is seen as necessary in today’s market, although most CEOs would rather repurpose these dollars for programs.

If we could reinvent how we share our services and results in a more cost-effective way, what would we do? Should we make our medical staff performance and hospital quality outcomes publicly available for the services that we feel distinguish our institutions? Because we know that consumer decisions are both rational (based on statistics) and emotional (based on perception of care and compassion), we should include testimonials. That sounds like a hybrid of Hospital and Physician Compare, US News and World Report rankings, and HCAP scores combined! Better yet, if we could target and market services to consumers for age-specific diseases, or leverage data about purchases that reveal their need for our specialty services, we could segment and connect with consumers more efficiently.

If we really used technology creatively and courageously, we would create an information aggregator that pulls data on hospital and physician quality and service that allows consumers to search and compare. Instead, we have created a huge federal infrastructure in Hospital and Physician Compare that is clunky and user-unfriendly. We don’t really know what patients want to know when they make their health care decisions, which vary with their individual preferences and medical needs. What would we discover if we let patients show us how they make decisions by tracking their searches in a broad database?

Maybe we don’t need to put the genie back in the bottle, but instead should give him a modern makeover.

Joanne Conroy is chief health care officer, Association of American Medical Colleges.  She blogs at Wing of Zock and can be reached on Twitter @joanneconroymd.

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  • ninguem

    If pharmaceutical advertising to doctors is such a problem that it needs to be heavily policed, maybe we should do the same with hospital advertising.

    • Suzi Q 38

      I agree.
      i heard an ad for the da vinci robot. I had to have a hysterectomy due to uterine cancer. I did not request it, but the doctor used this method. I am not sure it was the best method for uterine, and maybe a more open approach would have been preferable.

      I have had nerve complications since, so the jury is still out on the robot…at least for me, anyway.

      The local cancer teaching hospital has all kinds of ads on the radio. It has to advertise, as it is probably losing its market share.
      the reason is other large, teaching hospitals are offering cancer treatment. In addition, first and 2nd tier private hospitals are also offering the same.
      Now they need to compete for business, when they did not have to do that before.

      • buzzkillerjsmith

        I hear DaVinci is OK for hystos. I don’t know but I’ve been told by the local surgeon who does not use it himself.

        • Suzi Q 38

          Thanks Buzz.

    • Molly_Rn

      Pharmaceutical advertising to the public on TV, magazines, etc. is disgusting. Got a problem take a purple pill. Half the time you don’t know what the problem is, but you sure want the pill when they are through.

  • Sandra@Nuehealth

    Great article, important topic. I think pricing transparency is the keystone issue for hospital marketing that is relevant/useful to patient-consumers. It is very difficult to find out what the total cost of at surgery is going to be; it’s completely impossible to compare the cost/inclusions of having a surgery at Hospital A vs. Hospital B.

  • buzzkillerjsmith

    Finally a post I can agree with.

    Hospital advertizing is mostly disgusting, focusing on earning profits instead of helping sick people. The bozos in my area also just got a Da Vinci and are pushing like mad. The urology bozo in my town gave a public lecture to the oldsters trying to drum up prostate business.

    Hospital care in this country is more focused on earning money than taking care of the sick. If the CEO does not do this, he is fired. It’s the culture folks, welcome to America in the 2000s.

    This is worse back east. Going down 95 years ago (the only reason I will ever go east the the Rockies is to visit distant family), I saw an ad for a total body CT scan. Of no medical usefulness.

    • Noni

      Completely agree.

  • KW

    I agree that hospital advertising needs to be monitored. I cringe at the new buzzword in our area “center of excellence”….everything a hospital does now is performed in the Orthopaedic Center of Excellence or the Cardiac Center of Excellence. What’s the measure to define excellence?

  • Simon Sikorski MD

    #1 Mistakes hospital marketers make: not promoting ALL of their doctors. Healthcare Marketing Center has done several campaigns for hospital clients and independent doctors where each doctor has been separately promoted via social media & reputation management and it was enough to outcompete all the other local hospitals when patients are looking for specific services.

    Remember, patients want to know which doctors they will be seeing, and because of the internet they are given tools to run background checks on the doctors who work at those hospitals.

    The hospitals that take advantage of reputation management for their doctors are at a big advantage. Best of all, most of the time the doctors pay for it out of their own pocket.

  • Molly_Rn

    Helll, I remember before there was managed care, or the bottom line, or pre-existing conditions! I remember when we (the healthcare providing people…including hospitals) thought taking care of patients was the bottom line. How far we have fallen.

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