A national wellness campaign led by one of America's best-known doctors has suffered its share of administrative ailments.
Formerly known as the "Wellness Challenge," the latest health project from Art Ulene, M.D.-one-time health correspondent for the "Today" show-was postponed for several months by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and is struggling to add to a slim list of paying hospital participants. What's more, the for-profit venture was forced to change its name in the wake of a claim of copyright infringement.
Despite those hurdles, Ulene's newly renamed "Vitality Challenge," a behavioral health program and hospital-marketing effort, officially kicks off this week with an ambitious agenda but a disappointing roster of only 20 participating hospitals.
"Of course, we would like to have more; we'd like to have 100 right now," said Rod Pitre, a spokesman for the challenge, adding that the intent was to focus on key geographical areas. He said he was hopeful that more hospitals would sign on once they saw the TV campaign.
The campaign features a marketing program for hospital partners willing to spend $10,000 to $30,000, depending on their size, for exclusive rights to promote their association with Ulene.
The program debuts this week with a series of prerecorded health segments, hosted by Ulene, that will air during local TV newscasts. Ulene said about 90 stations have paid a $500 fee for the right to broadcast a series of 20 two- to three-minute segments focusing on a variety of health topics. A handful will broadcast the first segments April 22, but the majority will air April 29.
These infomercials, generic segments designed to fit seamlessly into newscasts, could provide high-profile exposure to hospitals, which can use them to market their services and increase patient recruitment, Pitre said. Hospitals will be encouraged to purchase advertisements to accompany Ulene's regular infomercials, which will contain no direct plug for local facilities. Ulene said campaign officials have negotiated with as many as 200 hospitals. But the enterprise has encountered two key problems in attracting takers: cost concerns after the terrorist attacks and the venture's own poor timing in soliciting some hospitals after their budgets had already been set for a fiscal year that started in October 2001, Pitre said.
"We expect, down the road, to be at 100 hospitals," said Ulene, an OB/GYN whose health reports appeared on NBC-TV's "Today" for almost two decades. "Things are going well."
Karen Stubblefield, a spokeswoman for 322-bed Christus St. Patrick Hospital in Lake Charles, La., said the hospital in the far southwest corner of the state signed up for the "Vitality Challenge" to augment its ongoing efforts to improve a strong community health program. She declined to say how much the hospital paid to become a local sponsor.
"We felt that participating in a national health campaign would certainly complement our efforts and significantly heighten local awareness of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle," she said. "This is a way for local folks to get involved."
Helping people become healthier is the impetus for the program, Ulene said. Viewers may sign up for a free, 28-day health program. They may also purchase a 282-page book titled Dr. Art Ulene's Vitality Challenge. Modern Healthcare is a sponsor of the challenge, which is being underwritten by private investors that Pitre declined to identify.
Ulene's campaign, expected to premiere in January, was delayed by the terrorist attacks, he said. In fact, the program was unveiled to industry officials during a national marketing conference in San Diego that began Sept. 9, 2001. Another problem arose when Ulene was threatened with a claim of trademark infringement by a hospital in Washington that had copyrighted the phrase "Wellness Challenge" for an employee health program. He changed the name about three months ago.
"We didn't think the claim was valid," Ulene said, "but I am one of those people who would rather switch than fight."