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Healthcare marketers reshape ad strategies

Hospitals and health systems have been spending more on advertising in recent years, with an emphasis on educating patients and engaging them in their growing role as healthcare consumers.

But there are sharp debates among healthcare providers and marketing experts about how to present advertising in responsible and ethical ways, the consumer value of most current marketing materials, and whether to continue relying on traditional mass-market advertising or shift to more targeted digital approaches.

A growing consideration for healthcare organizations in shaping their marketing strategies is that patients are on the hook for an increasing portion of their healthcare costs given the steady increase in health plan deductibles, copays and coinsurance. That has given them a stronger financial incentive to shop around for their providers. Providers want to convince these consumers that they are the highest-quality and most affordable option.

More than two-thirds of health systems expect their marketing departments to spend more time and resources influencing patient behavior over the next few years, rather than targeting physicians and other providers, according to a survey this summer by the Advisory Board Co., a Washington, D.C.-based healthcare consultancy. “Marketers are being asked to drive not only volume, but (are) pivoting to understand what consumers want so they can market appropriately,” said Anna Yakovenko, a senior consultant at the firm.

Not only do health systems want to persuade consumers to use their services, Yakovenko said, but they want them to use services in a specific way. With industry attention turning to value-based payment, more is not always better. “As you try to make sure patients are engaged, the message is much more complex than, 'Come get services here.' You have to craft messages that make consumers change their behavior.”


Dignity Health’s consumer-centric approach aims to help consumers make informed decisions. Dignity Health’s consumer-centric approach aims to help consumers make informed decisions.
The need to recognize patients as value-conscious shoppers prompted San Francisco-based Dignity Health to reorganize its marketing departments to establish a new consumer-centric, unified brand across its 39 hospitals and multispecialty medical groups, said Kate Grey, vice president of marketing for Dignity's Nevada region. At the local level, she restructured her marketing staff and added a dedicated digital team. “Consumers feel strongly about their choices in healthcare, and they are now being given broader choices,” she said. The new approach—with the tagline “Hello humankindness”—is aimed at helping consumers make informed decisions.

Meridian Health, a seven-hospital system in New Jersey, launched an advertising campaign that describes its continuum of care and encourages consumers to use it at the appropriate place for their specific needs. The campaign mentions the range of care options, including an urgent-care center, a primary-care office, the emergency department, or a 24-hour health advice call line. “We wanted to communicate in a simple, lighthearted and relatable way that Meridian has what the consumer needs when and where they need it,” said Chrisie Scott, vice president of marketing and communications.

New healthcare alliances, driven by changes in provider payment such as accountable care, also are affecting marketing strategies, said Patti Winegar, managing partner at SPM Marketing and Communications in LaGrange, Ill. “We're now looking at mega-mergers, a system with another system. What's that brand going to be?” she asked.

Hospitals, clinics and medical centers increased their ad spending 33% from 2011 to 2014. Most of that has been on television, which jumped 55% over the four years, while online ad spending more than doubled. In total, hospitals, clinics and medical centers spent nearly $2 billion on all types of ads last year, up from $1.5 billion in 2011, according to data from Kantar Media.

Unlike other industries, hospitals and doctors were slow to invest heavily in marketing because of prohibitions that lasted until the 1980s against advertising medical services. Ethicists note that healthcare advertisers always need to proceed cautiously given the sensitive nature of the content and because of legal issues.

Critics say that healthcare providers are giving consumers fuzzy, feel-good messaging that targets their hearts more than their heads, when what the public increasingly needs is reliable cost and quality information.

An article published last year in the American Journal of Bioethics questioned whether healthcare advertising needs more regulation. “The influence of medical advertising on patient preferences is largely unchecked,” the authors wrote. “This influence may mislead patients and encourage utilization practices that work against the goals of improving quality and decreasing costs.”

In an interview, one of the authors, Dr. Yael Schenker, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, said healthcare ads could be regulated like pharmaceutical ads, requiring evidence of quality and outcomes rather than simply emotional appeals. “There is an assumption that the advertising is … informative or fair and balanced, when that is not necessarily the case,” she said.

Marketers push back against such criticisms, arguing that healthcare advertising provides vital information to patients who need to know about services available in their communities, and that marketers are well aware of their ethical responsibilities. “We're talking about people's health and wellness,” said Chris Bevolo, a vice president at healthcare marketing firm ReviveHealth. “You don't want to come across as a hard sell on anything.”

The Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development recommended in a 2010 guidance that marketing be honest, accurate and undergo internal review.

Meanwhile, marketers debate the best ways to reach consumers in an increasingly fragmented and information-soaked world. “We are using all the same vehicles we always have—TV, radio, outdoor, print, direct mail,” Winegar said. But now “there's an explosion of tools at my disposal.” Those include digital options such as apps, websites, interactive bus-shelter displays and search-engine marketing.

Bevolo urges the healthcare industry to move away from traditional big-budget billboard and television campaigns. “It's awfully expensive to blanket a community with those kinds of messages when very few people are in a position to benefit” because most aren't currently in the market for care, he said. “With social media and digital marketing, you no longer have to rely on those blunt instruments.”

Instead, hospitals are starting to use search-engine ads and, to a lesser extent, marketing automation technology that sends targeted messages to consumers who have shown an interest in a hospital.

While Bevolo argues that big billboard-style branding is outdated, Dignity Health's Grey says there is still a place for it, in balance with more targeted approaches. “We continue to run TV and radio and (billboards) because … that is still the best way to reach people,” she said. Targeted marketing draws someone to a specific service and may appear to be more business-oriented instead of care-oriented, she said. So it might not be as effective in communicating the organization's values.

Consumers aren't always the target audience. Healthcare organizations also must reach out to physicians, other medical professionals, and policymakers and opinion leaders. That's why Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston ran a “national reputation” campaign to inform doctors and “influential audiences” about the research and clinical work being accomplished by its physicians. Dana-Farber's leaders felt their center wasn't getting due credit for achieving breakthroughs in cancer research and care.

Other healthcare sectors, including the pharmaceutical industry, are also using traditional media channels as well as digital to reach patients and consumers.

Digital strategies might focus on following up with people who have visited the website of a medical product, or offering a mobile app that provides a specific benefit. Astellas Pharma U.S., maker of the drug Myrbetriq for patients with overactive bladders, sponsors the RunPee app, which offers identifies times within movies when they can take a bathroom break without missing key plot points. The partnership has been good for Astellas and the developer who created the app.

“Partnering with pharmaceuticals is great if there's some kind of consumer tie-in,” said RunPee creator Dan Florio, whose app now has more than 600,000 users.

Apps are no longer “avant-garde,” said pharmaceutical marketer Mark Dean, digital strategy director at Area 23 advertising. But they can be useful if they offer consumers a “high-value task that makes the person's life easier.”

Access into the mobile phones of consumers sitting in a movie theater is highly valuable to healthcare marketers, who look for new ways to connect with people. “All of us, every day, are thinking about something related to our health,” Bevolo said. “Hospitals and health systems are in a unique position to connect with consumers about that.”

Jan Greene is a freelance writer based in Alameda, Calif.


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