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7 Thoughts on Healthcare Marketing

VP of Marketing Mike Killeen recently spoke to a healthcare marketing class at Valdosta State University. Here are the notes from Mike’s presentation.

1. Marketing healthcare is noble work

It connects doctors and patients who need them

Marketing often gets a bad rap. For some, it is the dark side of business, purely focused on making the cash register ring. But the purpose of marketing is to connect people with products and services they desire.

In turn, healthcare marketing exists to connect patients with healthcare providers and services that can help them stay healthy, get well, and live better lives.

Sure, marketing has been used to sell cigarettes to children. That’s bad. But more often it helps patients in need find a doctor that can care for them. That’s good.

 

2. Patients are people, too

They drink Coke and vote in elections

Effective healthcare marketing has more in common with consumer product marketing than most people realize. Why? Because patients are people, not some foreign species that exists only to receive medical treatment.

In other words, we’re all consumers, making choices everyday about what soda to drink, which political candidate to vote for, and where to take our sick kids for care.

Consumers arrive at buying decisions for different products in similar ways. They want value. They want to make choices with confidence. And, most of all, they want to associate with brands, organizations, and products that reinforce their views of themselves.

That’s true whether they are choosing a doctor or a can of sugar water.

 

3. Healthcare is jazz

Overnight shipping is the symphony

Patients may not be a foreign species, but doctors and healthcare executives often are!

That’s a joke of course, but the point is that the most singular aspect of healthcare marketing isn’t the patient audience, but working within the healthcare ecosystem, which presents a set of dynamics very different from other industries.

The healthcare industry is a constellation of loosely associated components striving to move together in a positive direction – kind of like a jazz band. Hospitals, physician practices, government, private insurance groups, pharmaceutical companies, and non-profit organizations all play a role. Sometimes they are well coordinated, and sometimes they are not. Overnight shipping, on the other hand, is more like the symphony: a well “orchestrated” set of activities arranged with a single goal in mind.

Today, the healthcare industry is experiencing a rapid transformation toward consumerism, where patients make independent choices about their care team instead of relying entirely on physician referrals. Most senior physicians and leadership entered the industry and built successful practices before the rise of the Internet and healthcare reform helped create this new reality.

So, understanding how patients make decisions is the easier part. Understanding how to effectively communicate the value of direct-to-patient marketing to a healthcare organization’s leadership requires a deeper understanding of the industry.

 

4. Nobody cares until they do

Then it’s all that matters

There is a segment of the population that is always in the market for a new guitar. If they had the money, the space, and their spouse’s approval, they would buy a guitar every day. But on a given day, relatively few people have an interest in or need for an orthopedic surgeon. Their backs, knees, and shoulders feel great. So, they probably wouldn’t even notice a TV commercial for an orthopedic group. But an ad about a holiday special at Guitar Center? That gets their hearts pounding every time.

There’s an old healthcare marketing joke about the guy who injures his knee and turns on the radio, waiting to hear the first ad for an orthopedic surgeon, so he knows where to go for help. The point is that that’s not how it works. By the time you injure your knee, the well marketed practice has probably already won your business, even if you didn’t consciously notice their TV ads until you were hurt.

Healthcare is a service that most people don’t think or care about until they need it. Once they do, it’s all that matters to them, and then they want to act fast. The lesson is that healthcare marketing requires branding—establishing a preference in the mind of the consumer before they have a need—and patience until the need arises. It’s an investment, but one that pays off.

 

5. All doctors are experts

And everybody cares

If you are a physician in America, there is some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the public recognizes you as an expert. The bad news is that they think the same of your colleagues and competition.

The message is that clinical expertise is rarely a differentiator. Word of mouth based on bedside manner and even wait times are more likely to separate a physician from the pack—as is an association with well-esteemed and well-branded institution.

Marketing works best when there is an appropriate balance between functional and emotional appeals. But the classic healthcare marketing mistake is saying, “we are experts” (functional appeal) and “we care” (emotional appeal).

Expertise and compassionate medicine are examples of the “price of entry” concept—where what is most important to the consumer is also expected by them, and therefore does not differentiate one product from another. A healthcare provider promoting expertise and compassion will be about as effective as a restaurant promoting its clean kitchen, or an airline promoting safety. In either case a stronger position, or differentiator, is required for success.

 

6. Big data is coming

But will patients accept it?

In some ways healthcare marketing is the ultimate branding platform. Historically, very little data has been published about patient outcomes, and treatment expenses are largely hidden from view.

So, what do patients compare? Their perceptions and the reputations of the healthcare providers they consider. In other words: their brands.

This may be changing. Soon, we will see more healthcare data than ever before. Healthcare reform and the advent of Accountable Care Organizations are tying payment models to patient outcomes. Medicare has begun releasing physician-payment records annually, providing public access to how billions of dollars are spent on healthcare each year. And high deductible insurance plans are helping accelerate the retail medicine movement.
Together, these changes further contribute to an increasingly consumer healthcare environment where patients will have the opportunity to consider the more functional components (like treatment results and pricing) rather than relying on physician referrals and quality perceptions when making healthcare decisions.

The questions are whether, and how fast, patients will embrace the opportunity.

 

7. Dear Doctor: It’s not about you

Tell your patients’ stories, not yours

For whatever reason, doctors really like promoting their backgrounds: the schools they attended (all four of them), their certifications, prior hospital leadership positions, the conferences they attended, and the papers they’ve published.

But their audience—the ones who make or break their businesses—are patients who want to hear about the things that affect them: the treatments they have to choose from, what they’ll experience on their first office visit, and whether their insurance is accepted.

If they do care to hear about their doctor, it’s not where they went for residency, but why they entered medicine, what they are passionate about, and which former patient had the greatest impact on their life – all things that will help discerning patients understand what they can expect from their doctor.