For years, makers of consumer products have tailored their pitches to reach ethnic groups. Now the healthcare industry is discovering the merits of ethnic marketing.
Take Southern California, where hospitals and managed-care plans have launched a flurry of initiatives in recent months. Among them:
FHP Health Care, Fountain Valley, Calif., contracted with medical groups who serve Vietnamese, Chinese and Hispanics in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Marketers and physicians are putting their heads together to design outreach programs and ads for those communities.
Glendale (Calif.) Adventist Medical Center affiliated with a five-member medical group that serves a community of 50,000 Armenian immigrants.
In Los Angeles, a brother-and-sister team started VivaHealth, reportedly the first HMO for Latinos.
Ethnic marketing is taking hold elsewhere, as the industry attempts to accommodate the nearly 8% of U.S. residents who are foreign born. Other efforts are under way in Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas and Washington.
"I don't think there's a major market that's not going to be faced with this in the next three to five years," said Seattle consultant Kathleen O'Connor, who develops non-English health education materials.
Mark of distinction. In competitive
markets, cultural specialization is a way for providers to distinguish themselves from the pack.
FHP is sponsoring school activities, sending staff members to chamber of commerce mixers and advertising in ethnic media. "The simple statement that there's a doctor on the corner is no longer good enough," said Alonso Silva Jr., who's in charge of FHP's ethnic marketing.
The demand for efficiency under managed care and capitation also is driving the trend. After all, patients don't follow instructions they don't understand. Physicians order tests when they can't tell what a patient is saying. Health plan members delay basic care when they're offended or frustrated by the system.
Physicians as liaisons. Established physicians are proving valuable liaisons. Mr. Silva said physicians of the same ethnic group are banding together in independent practice associations and using their cultural roots as a selling point.
"Some of these IPAs are just months old, and ethnic marketing is evolving just as quickly," he said. "They are coming to FHP and telling us, `We can better service the customers because of our superior knowledge of the customers.'*"
Physicians and other providers lend cultural understanding as well as language skills. In some Hispanic cultures, gynecological exams are considered only for the promiscuous. Asian and Hispanic societies emphasize holistic healing. Iron Curtain countries historically lack effective drugs, birth control and public health education.
Offer guidance. The multispecialty Wilson Medical Group in Glendale sees its mission as guiding recent Armenian immigrants, who make up 70% of the practice's patients, into the world of modern medical care. Said Steven Kamajian, M.D.: "It doesn't occur to people from these parts of the world that smoking is not good for your health."
In June, Glendale Adventist and the Wilson Medical Group launched a $50,000 mass marketing campaign aimed at Armenian businesses, major employers of Armenians, Armenian Medicare-eligible seniors and managed-care plans. The campaign is also meant to "speak" to Armenian women, the traditional healthcare decisionmakers in Armenian families.
Target a group. Another approach is to improve service to one group within a larger system. Two years ago Lovelace Health System in Albuquerque, N.M., started looking for ways to help Spanish speakers, who constitute 6% of its patients.
The staff was embarrassed to learn the few Spanish signs and forms the company did have were grammatically incorrect. "It detracts from people reading it or paying attention to it," said Anne Monson, director of public relations.
The company hired a consultant to rewrite signs and forms, produced inexpensive Spanish voice-overs of ads, created an in-house program to certify staff members as translators and bought Spanish-English dictionaries.
"It's not spending a million dollars of marketing money," Ms. Monson said. "It was just taking a look at our market and going, `Wait a minute. We're not addressing one of our largest markets in this state.'*"
She said anecdotal responses from employer groups have been positive, and staff members feel more effective. "We're seeing that everyone is a winner in these efforts," she said.