The VHA alliance is inching toward the launch of a massive nationwide advertising campaign that will tout member hospitals as quality leaders in their regional markets, MODERN HEALTHCARE has learned.
Still in its formative stages, the campaign as conceived would forgo building a national brand based on the VHA name and instead focus on establishing a local competitive edge for VHA hospitals based on quality measures, say people familiar with discussions at VHA. The Irving, Texas-based alliance represents more than 1,100 not-for-profit hospitals.
Under the plan being considered, a hospital or health system would use clinical and service quality measures, ranging from detailed outcomes data to appointment waiting times, in advertising directed at influencing both consumer and employer choice of hospitals.
High-quality, centrally produced advertising would be customized for local members. The linchpin of the effort would be a public commitment by participating VHA systems to quality improvement targets and then regular updates to the local community on their progress in meeting them.
"If you did it successfully . . . you would distinguish yourself," said one VHA hospital executive familiar with the effort. In preliminary discussions about 18 months ago, VHA considered a more traditional branding effort. But that approach, he said, "would never have made it through the membership" because it was perceived as "too much to spend for something that's not worthwhile."
Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain, launched such a national branding campaign in August 1996. Columbia, however, halted the effort a year later as part of a reorganization triggered by a massive federal fraud investigation, still ongoing.
VHA's campaign planning is being driven by distressing results from market research the alliance conducted. Surveys of 1,000 household healthcare decisionmakers in major markets and of healthcare purchasers revealed deteriorating trust in healthcare organizations. They found:
Some 30% of surveyed consumers said their trust in hospitals has slipped in the past five years.
Seventy-eight percent of surveyed employers said they would be more likely to include a "better hospital" as an approved provider, even if it cost more.
"Things are not all roses" for not-for-profits, said Kelly Breazeale, a longtime VHA executive in charge of the marketing effort.
VHA's aim, Breazeale said, is twofold: "To enhance trust of consumers in the healthcare delivery system and to differentiate our members in that effort." He said the challenge will be developing a message and making it stick.
Physicians would constitute a third target audience. VHA would seek to attract physicians with a message that market-leading institutions could improve the size and quality of their practices, VHA said.
A full-blown advertising campaign is not expected to emerge before year-end. And there is no assurance the plan as now conceived will be put in place.
"Our money is our members' money, so first we have to find if there's a message there," Breazeale said. "Moving an issue on a national basis is not insignificant or inexpensive." VHA declined to provide cost estimates for the developing effort. According to a VHA hospital executive familiar with events, the effort easily could cost tens of millions of dollars annually.
A trial campaign is expected to debut in three markets in the Southeast and Southwest, perhaps as early as summer, with Memphis and Oklahoma City possible incubators, one source said. Only if the pilots show promise would the program be rolled out nationally.