Doing More With Less Tight Budgets Pose Challenges In Today’s Health Care Marketing Arena

Marketing is big business today — research, sales, advertising, promotion, PR, you name it. And big business means big budgets. Yet, in an industry — health care — where the rules change every time Congress picks up a pen, and payment rates are negotiated for nearly every payer, big business means doing more with less.
Twenty years ago, when I first entered this field, health care marketing was usually defined as the functions of public relations, fundraising, and strategic planning.

There were few, if any, master’s-prepared marketing experts in the position, and fewer marketing-savvy executives in leadership roles. Today, many if not all hospitals and health systems have teams of marketing experts setting strategy, monitoring patient and physician trends, tracking satisfaction, and focusing patient-relevant communications to hit the ‘sweet spot’ of consumer need and organizational ability to perform.

In health care, we face an environment where increases in reimbursement continue to fall below the cost of living (and cost of caring) indices, often leaving marketing the low-hanging fruit that is first picked to reduce, cut back, and conserve. ‘Do more with less’ is the mantra.

The typical rule of thumb for business is to allocate 4{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of an organization’s gross revenue to advertising. In health care, that number rarely drives the budget. In fact, most advertising, promotion, and direct mail budgets come closer to totaling 1{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} to 2{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of net revenues. That further underscores the need to hit that ‘sweet spot’ with one’s message.

Market research is an invaluable tool to help us track both expectations and satisfaction with service delivery. The Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations has required patient satisfaction surveys for nearly 20 years. Most hospitals use this data in conjunction with their internal performance improvement processes to address areas of concern.

Questions on care aspects such as “nurse’s responsiveness to my needs,” “clarity of the explanations I received,” and “did my care team seem to talk to each other (i.e., are they knowledgeable about my case)?” frequently drive how satisfied patients are with their care experiences. Organizations today need to monitor how their current patients feel about the services they receive as well as understand what their non-customers need and expect from a hospital.

Armed with this information, today’s health care marketing team will create a plan that includes strategies around public relations, advertising, promotion, events, outreach, and education. Those plans will frequently involve input from physicians, nurses, and other providers.

Health care advertising strategy has morphed from “image building” to “high-tech” to “xyz center of excellence” to a new dimension of educating the better-informed consumer of what services are needed, understanding the expectations for the delivery of that service, and communicating the promise of meeting those expectations. It’s about the experience. All organizations are working on quality. All consumers expect that you, as an organization, can do the procedure, the test, the operation, and that you have qualified staff and physicians. The differentiating factor has become delivering on the expected experience. Do you as a provider put the patient at the center of it all?

Further, there is a lot more clutter in today’s advertising pages than there was 20 years ago. Pharmaceutical companies now advertise directly to patients. Every hospital, nursing home, physician specialty practice, home care agency, HMO, and insurance company has ads in the popular mediums. We all use great-looking patients, competent-appearing professionals, and soulful messages. Frequently, all that is communicated is confusion.

Today’s health care marketing strategy has to combine the communication vehicles that deliver a message that has relevance and conveys a sense of competency that mirrors the health care experience the consumer expects. Educating the consumer around guidelines for screenings, physicals, when to go to the emergency room, when to call a physician, how to find a physician that will create a relationship that matches expectations, and helping mold that experience expectation is a tall task for any marketing campaign.

Today’s ‘wired’ consumer presents additional new challenges. No longer are we bound by what is pushed out to us by direct mail, advertisements, and billboards. As consumers, we can surf the Internet, learn more about our body parts and how they work than we can possibly understand, and arm ourselves with questions, concerns, and self-diagnosis as we approach our own health care. Health care marketers must play a role in focusing hospital Web sites around quality content, educational information that is easily understood, and access to related assistance.

Today’s consumer wants to find out about the best provider, schedule a convenient appointment online, get directions to the office, prepare themselves with a list of questions, and have a relational experience with their provider that includes respect for their privacy, attention to their needs, and resolution of their complaint. The consumer wants an experience that matches their expectations for these world-class, high-tech, caring, state-of-the-art, best-in-class, top-100, small, large, community, teaching, private, public, for-profit, not-for-profit health care providers.

And that’s how it’s done. There’s nothing to it … really.

Candace Quinn is vice president for Strategic Communications and Marketing at Baystate Health System in Springfield. She has held that position for 14 years, and spent another seven years in similar positions prior to coming to Baystate. She holds a master’s degree in Management with majors in Marketing and Hospital and Health Services Management from the J. L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.