The once-distinct functions of public relations and planning have become blurred. Increasingly, professionals in those fields are called upon to perform a range of functions under the umbrella of marketing.
So the proposed merger of the American Hospital Association's public relations and planning societies makes abundant sense, say leaders of the two groups.
The AHA board has endorsed a merger of the American Society for Health Care Marketing and Public Relations and the Society for Healthcare Planning and Marketing. However, the ultimate decision is up to the societies' 5,500 members, who will be mailed ballots this month.
If the merger is approved as expected, it would be completed by mid-July. The societies have planned a joint conference for Sept. 27-30 in Atlanta.
"It is very clear that this is something the members really, really want to happen," ASHCMPR President Rhoda Weiss said. "Planners and executives are saying their No. 1 need is communications."
The speakers, newsletters and educational tracks of the two AHA societies have become similar over the years. At least 450 people belong to both groups.
SHPM President Steven Sloate points to himself as a classic case of the need for broad skills. He entered the field as a planner 15 years ago with accounting skills and a master's degree in health and hospital administration and business administration.
"I quickly realized that marketing is where healthcare is going," said Sloate, now associate vice chancellor at Duke University Medical Center and Health System in Durham, N.C. "By having all those disciplines in one organizational structure, the coordination role is so much easier."
The two AHA societies have faced a slight decrease in membership in recent years, which the AHA blames on consolidation and downsizing by hospitals and health systems. The Chicago-based Alliance for Healthcare Strategy and Marketing, a similar group, also reported a slight decline in membership last year.
But there also are more societies and for-profit companies offering marketing education, sparked by healthcare's environment of rapid change.
"The market for professional alliances and societies is a competitive one," Sloate said. "Whereas ASHCMPR and SHPM were the leaders, suddenly the calendar was full of competing educational programs. It's a mixed group of folks trying to play at that game."
It's all the result of the emergence of healthcare marketing as an acknowledged discipline. Fifteen years ago, "you couldn't say marketing for fear of bleeding profusely. It was professionally unacceptable in the healthcare industry to speak of systematic, businesslike marketing," Sloate said. "It wasn't until the mid-1980s that marketing became an acceptable, necessary discipline as competition emerged."
In fact, "marketing" wasn't part of either AHA society's name until 1984. A name hasn't been announced for the new society, but chances are good it will include marketing.