Health Care Marketing A Two-way Street

When tight budgets for hospitals and other health care facilities collide with the need for strong marketing and name recognition, it helps to be creative.
And the institution doesn’t have to be the only one to benefit.
Increasingly, facilities are getting their names and services into the community not only through direct advertising, but also through a more subtle method that costs less but can have a greater impact: education programs.

Alzheimer’s disease. Breast cancer. Cardiovascular health. There’s a literal alphabet soup of seminars, programs, and lectures being sponsored by area hospitals, elder-care centers, and health organizations, and they have an impact in more ways than one.

“Our goal is to provide not only information, but tools to either help people achieve optimal well-being or prevent illness — and we do that in a variety of different ways,” said Sharon Casey, a nurse and community education coordinator at Holyoke Hospital.

Those methods include exercise and physical fitness classes, cholesterol and blood pressure screenings, and informational lectures on topics such as healthy eating, to name just a few.
One idea, she said, is to provide the information people need to treat chronic conditions and keep themselves healthy at home, thereby reducing the possibility — and length — of hospital stays.

However, as Casey and other area administrators will admit, if patients do need hospital care, these community-education outreaches are a way to make sure they return to that facility. It’s advertising of a different, but often very effective, sort.

Lessons Learned

Susan Fenelon Kerr, director of community relations at Mercy Medical Center, is convinced that the public reaps the main benefits of community-education programs, such as a recent breast cancer seminar that featured a psychologist, a surgeon, and a patient among its speakers. The end result, she said, was a wealth of information too broad to be picked up on an average doctor visit.

“When consumers go to the doctor, they only have a certain amount of time there, and after they walk out the door, that’s when the questions come up,” she said.
The public forums allow more time to address a wide range of topics, and when someone brings up an issue during a question-and-answer session, dozens of people might benefit from the answer at once. Doctors, too, appreciate the extended discussions, she added.

“Also, insurance companies sometimes limit which facilities patients can use, and they often learn about services they’re not aware of at these public lectures,” Fenelon Kerr said.
The benefit to the hospital comes later, said Trish Perrault, Mercy’s director of marketing. “People who come here for a lecture can say, ‘now I know somebody at Mercy. Now I know a doctor there.’” And a potential new patient is cultivated.

“The goal is to provide an opportunity to the general public to meet physicians and other health professionals in an environment that is non-threatening, and they can get to know the people who are here,” Holyoke’s Casey agreed. “Then, in the event that they do need us for an inpatient or outpatient visit, they’ll feel comfortable here. So it’s good for us, and good for them.”

Even events such as KidCare at the Holyoke Mall and a health fair on the hospital grounds every September serve a similar purpose, she added.
“Once people have been here to a program and driven on campus, they know where to park, they’re familiar with their surroundings, and if they like the staff, they might choose to receive care here instead of somewhere else.”

Away from the Road

The same concept applies to a nursing home, said Greg Goodman, director of marketing and public relations for Jewish Geriatric Services in Longmeadow. For several years, he has been overseeing the JGS Institute, a series of programs centered around an annual theme.

Following a theme of “There Is Life after Menopause” in 2002, this year’s events are centered around the topic “Taking Charge of Your Health and Life,” which kicked off with a presentation by Dr. Reed Shnider, head of Baystate Medical Center’s Change of Heart program for cardiovascular health. Programs dealing with topics as diverse as body image, memory, and depression have followed.

For 2004, Goodman is already lining up programs for a “Staying Healthy after 50” theme, including topics such as nutrition and prescription drugs.

For the latter, JGS has already collaborated with Big Y pharmacists on workshops to help seniors understand the risks and interactions of their medications, and will do so again.
“It’s important for us to make sure that people understand what we are,” he said. “Alzheimer’s disease, telemedicine, serving seniors, these are our areas of expertise, and offering educational programs on these topics allows us to tell people even more that these are areas in which we serve people well.”

That, in turn, will help cultivate a potential group of new residents for the Julian J. Leavitt Family Jewish Nursing Home down the road, simply from allowing them the chance to glimpse the facility at one of these events.

“I really get the feeling that people would not come to our campus unless they have a relative here or another reason to come into a nursing home,” Goodman said. “Programs of this nature bring people to our campus and give people an understanding of the kind of organization we are today.”

That’s an important message, especially for those whose images of nursing homes might be stuck in the 1960s.

“There was a time when nursing homes were highly institutional places,” Goodman said. “Now they’re very welcoming and homelike. We have a beautiful campus here, but you can’t see it from the street. So we need to bring people in.”

Reaping Rewards

Still, Goodman agrees with the hospital administrators who say that that, if the programs aren’t beneficial to the community, they won’t serve as an effective marketing tool for the facility.
Casey said a recently launched program concerning congestive heart failure is intended to keep down repeated hospital admissions, while Mercy teamed with the Department of Public Health to help area residents learn how to access services.

Seen as a whole, the programs are meant to improve quality of life, and not just in the hospital.

“We want people to be healthy,” Casey said. “Whether it’s diabetes or stress management, we want them to get healthy and stay healthy.”

“When I’m thinking about how I can market a particular service or program, I’m looking for some kind of measurement,” Perrault said. “And the benefit is providing information to the community.”

And for those who need help the m

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