Patient referrals are up at a Detroit-area health system, but a radio advertisement that prompted the spike continues to rile physicians with its tense tone, hovering heartbeat and venerable voice-over. The centerpiece of the controversial pitch is a simple question: "Do you have a Beaumont doctor?"
In what has been described as an unusual ad campaign for the healthcare industry, William Beaumont Hospitals' radio spots for two years have been asking Detroit residents to think hard about the system affiliation of the doctor they choose.
On the surface it may sound innocent enough. But the highly successful ads-and one in particular-have incited the tempers of area physicians by employing what some have called scare tactics and by implying that non-Beaumont doctors aren't necessarily as qualified as their Beaumont counterparts (See ad text above).
"The whole message is repugnant," Alan Mindlin, M.D., a Detroit-area ophthalmologist, said of the ads. "Doctors as a group don't portray themselves as better than another group of doctors."
But that's exactly how many interpret the ads, which have aired at various intervals since April 1999 and have sparked an ongoing battle about what constitutes appropriate messages in healthcare promotions.
Based in the young and affluent Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, Beaumont claims in the most talked-about ad that "we know of no other hospital with a tougher credentialing process, or a higher percentage of board-certified surgeons." By using the simple phrase "we know of," Beaumont is off the hook for providing statistics to back up its claim, healthcare advertising professionals agreed.
"Especially in something as important as healthcare, if you're going to be comparative, the comparison should be based on hard, public, published data, not implication and innuendo," said Toby Sachs, chief executive officer of LeoHealth, a division of Chicago-based advertising giant Leo Burnett Worldwide.
Beaumont's radio ads, on which the two-hospital system has spent about $500,000, "are meant to demonstrate that choosing a doctor is a serious issue, an important issue, and shouldn't be taken lightly," said Beaumont's director of marketing Mike Killian, who acknowledged that their tone and style gave the ads a certain seriousness.
As for whether Beaumont actually has tougher standards and more board-certified surgeons, Killian said he wasn't sure.
"We don't know of anybody whose credentialing is any tougher than ours but we don't say ours is the toughest," Killian said. "I don't think there's any way to prove that even if we could."
Eunice O'Loughlin, vice president of marketing and public relations for Beaumont's nearby competitor, St. John Health System, argued that "the credentialing process is extensive no matter which hospital you practice in." St. John, which spends about $1.2 million annually on advertising, centers its ads on the belief that consumers want softer information, such as how physicians communicate with patients and understand their "cultural uniqueness," O'Loughlin said.
Regardless of how physicians have reacted to Beaumont's ad, the campaign is working. Referrals to Beaumont doctors have increased 25% to 30% per year since the ads started running, Killian said.
Physicians contacted by Modern Healthcare agreed consumers could easily view the Beaumont ads as a warning even if quality comparisons are unfair or unfounded.
"Is (Beaumont) really better care? Well, obviously not," said Steven Newman, M.D., a neurologist on staff at Beaumont and the Detroit Medical Center, and president of the Oakland County Medical Society. "If one were looking at the ad for an outright lie, it's not an outright lie." But the radio spot's ominous quality, Newman said, is something a transcript can't convey. "You have to hear it run."
Other Beaumont physicians agreed. The ad "has a menacing tone to it," said Betty Chu, M.D., an OB/GYN in the process of setting up her practice. "All of us were kind of surprised by the ad because it has such a strong message."
AMA frowns on ads
The American Medical Association discourages ads that speak to the competence and quality of physicians unless such claims are factually supportable. Additionally, its policy on hospital advertising states "in order to prevent medical misinformation, the AMA encourages medical staff participation in hospital administration decisions regarding marketing and advertising."
Beaumont physicians did participate in approving the ad before it ran, Killian said. Several physicians reviewed it, including the presidents of various medical staffs and Beaumont's chief medical officer.
No matter who approves an ad, urging patients to choose a given hospital because its physicians are more qualified is one of the industry's no-no's, marketing experts said.
"In healthcare, what makes the ad radical is that (Beaumont) is using a scare-tactic tone," said Rob Klein, vice president of the healthcare division of Livonia, Mich.-based Market Strategies, a consulting firm. "It would be like the airline industry saying, `We're less likely to kill you so you're safer flying with us.' "
Marketing executives of other Detroit health systems agreed that Beaumont's campaign has been effective, if a bit misleading.
"There may be some manipulation of facts or factoids in some of their ads," said Bill Schram, vice president of planning and marketing for six-hospital Henry Ford Health System, which spent approximately $2.2 million last year on advertising that included a print campaign featuring the Red Wings, Detroit's popular hockey team.
Despite Beaumont's questionable claims, Schram said, "I think it's a very good ad, a strong ad."