When I was a growing up as the son of a doctor, I knew there was one thing my dad would never do, or be a part of an organization that did it on his behalf. And it's something almost everyone in healthcare does now—advertise.
Why was my father so adamantly against it? I think he believed his profession to be above crass commercial interests. His mindset was that doctors, who heal the sick and help eliminate suffering, shouldn't be in it for the money.
To be honest, I never really understood my father's attitude. I knew he was a great surgeon, so why shouldn't he advertise and let the community know? Maybe if he did it, more people would get better care from a more experienced physician.
At their best, advertising and marketing play a vital role in helping people know what goods and services are out there, and then once they try them, the free market sorts out who wins and who loses. If you make a great product—or if you can do a gall bladder operation better than anyone—why not let the world know?
But that presupposes you can trust ad campaigns. When it comes to marketing healthcare services, that dynamic becomes even more important because we are talking about people's well-being.
All of those ideas concerning healthcare marketing came together in my mind a few weeks ago when the New York Times Magazine ran its special “The Body Issue.” Flipping through the issue, I was surprised to find so many big, glossy healthcare ads—eight full pages of ads and a three-page special advertorial section about new neurological treatments.
All of the advertisements looked great and were visually compelling. They were all also pretty vague. They were peppered with terms like “best,” “state-of-the-art,” “comprehensive,” “effective,” “world class” and “number one.”
What didn't I see? A lot of facts. If I am a healthcare consumer trying to decide where to go for a procedure, I want to know why your hospital is better. I need less description and more data.
But data is dull and sizzle sells. Right?
Most of the time that's true, but it doesn't have to be that way, and it shouldn't be that way when you're talking about something as crucial as healthcare. There are few consumers who can make their way through a quality ratings report and come out on the other side knowing what hospital to choose or what doctors to see for which procedures. As an exercise, I looked into the mortality rates related to heart surgery at a Chicago hospital and was flustered and lost in an online maze of data in just moments.
That's what a good advertisement, marketing campaign or, for that matter, feature article, should do—take solid, meaningful data and articulate it in a compelling way so that consumers can benefit from it. And because our healthcare system is on the verge of gaining access to oceans more data in the next few years, helping people get the most out of that information will become a real skill for marketers working for healthcare providers.
I am definitely not a purist like my father when it comes to healthcare advertising. It's essential to market quality healthcare outcomes. That being said, you shouldn't try to hype healthcare in an ad the same way you pump up a new soda pop or salsa flavor. The future of healthcare marketing is in a very interesting and transitional phase right now. I can only hope that, like healthcare itself, it will use the data becoming available as wisely and transparently as possible.
John D. Thomas
Chief of Editorial Operations