The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations is taking a page out of the pharmaceutical industry's playbook. It's reaching over the heads of healthcare provider middlemen to talk directly to consumers.
On Nov. 2 the Joint Commission launched a radio advertising campaign in seven major markets. The 30- and 60-second spots feature Dennis O'Leary, M.D., the JCAHO's president and chief executive officer, extolling the virtues of accreditation.
"Advertising is not something new to the Joint Commission," said spokeswoman Janet McIntyre. She pointed out that the agency frequently advertises in MODERN HEALTHCARE.
"Obviously we've had ads geared more toward the healthcare community and business community," McIntyre said. "This is a consumer approach. We're just trying to create a little more awareness among the public."
The ads are running in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York and Washington. In Los Angeles, for instance, the ads appear on KABC-AM, the ABC network flagship on the West Coast. In Chicago, they are on WBBM-AM, an all-news-format CBS affiliate.
McIntyre would say only that the Joint Comission is spending "a minimal amount." The campaign is scheduled for three weeks.
"Are you concerned about the quality of your healthcare?" begins the ad, read by O'Leary, who then explains accreditation and its importance. "Ask about your healthcare organization's accreditation status so that you can make informed healthcare decisions," he concludes.
The JCAHO wrote the scripts in-house, McIntyre said. She said she wasn't aware of any mechanism being used to measure the success of the campaign.
The Joint Commission is a not-for-profit healthcare quality organization controlled by healthcare providers. The American Hospital Association and the American Medical Association together appoint half the 28-member board of commissioners. Six commissioners are named from nonprovider organizations to represent the public.
The JCAHO accredits about 5,200 hospitals. That number has remained steady over the past five years, said Cathy Barry-Ipema, JCAHO director of communications. The organization accredits about 80% of all hospitals, which are responsible for 95% of all inpatient beds.
The board of commissioners knows about the campaign but didn't vote on it. "Typically they don't vote on that kind of thing," Barry-Ipema said.
Dave Santrella, local sales manager at WBBM in Chicago, said a morning drive-time 30- or 60-second spot costs $1,200. Running ads throughout the day costs considerably less, so most advertisers choose that option. "Radio is a frequency medium," Santrella said. People have to hear an ad repeated before it really registers.
McIntyre said the new campaign complements the recent expansion of public access to Joint Commission findings and reports.
Over the grumblings of some hospitals, the Joint Commission has exposed its deliberations to the public. People can get performance reports showing providers' scores on their most recent accreditation survey and any recommendations for improvement. The Joint Commission had briefly offered on request information about whether a healthcare organization had experienced a sentinel event, or a serious patient-care error. However, criticism from hospitals ended that option.
Kent Ballantyne, senior vice president of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, said he had two reactions to the ad campaign. "It's a good thing for people to know that their hospital has been surveyed by a nonbiased evaluator and met quality standards. It builds confidence in the facility; and if people are confident when they go in, they'll probably react more positively to their care."
On the flip side, he said, not all facilities that provide high-quality care are accredited, mainly because of cost. Ballantyne, who comes from a rural background, noted that hospitals in many smaller communities are licensed by their state. "They do not seek to meet all the rigid criteria of the Joint Commission or the expense the Joint Commission would impose," he said.
The HMO industry can testify to the effectiveness of direct-to-consumer advertising. Since pharmaceutical companies branched out from the New England Journal of Medicine to embrace People, Ladies' Home Journal, Newsweek and other popular magazines, their sales of drugs for depression, ulcers and other common complaints have ballooned.
Patients apparently ask their doctors to prescribe medications they have read about. This trend has been a leading cost driver, pushing up utilization over the past two years, and it has contributed to losses suffered by managed-care companies.
It would appear that the Joint Commission wants to establish a brand identity beyond the industry and among the public.
"Our mission," said McIntyre, "is to improve the quality of care provided to the public. You're seeing people become healthcare consumers. They're trying to find ways to make decisions. Accreditation information that the Joint Commission provides is one source of that information."
So healthcare organizations probably shouldn't be surprised if they start hearing patients ask: "By the way, are you accredited by the Joint Commission?"