Controversial wellness campaign highlights how little the public knows (or cares) about healthcare

Think about how the healthcare marketer's job has changed in the wake of programs and government regulations such as the Meaningful Use incentive program, the Affordable Care Act, the shift from episodic care to managed care and population health, accountable care models and an increasing focus on patient experience and satisfaction as a quality and outcomes improvement tool. I'm not saying market strategy, ad campaigns and even social media efforts haven't always been important.

But the stakes are a lot higher now.

Despite the public's odd aversion to healthcare marketing and advertising, healthcare organizations are a business. And if they don't stay in business, it's the public that suffers: "No money, no mission." Many patients today also are unaware of the toll poor behaviors can have on the ailing healthcare system--and many also have an aversion to eating well, exercising and managing their chronic conditions.

And they certainly don't understand how all these initiatives affect a hospital's mission--let alone its bottom line. How many patients do you suppose know, for example, that the Meaningful Use electronic health records incentive program requires 5 percent of an organization's patients download or view its electronic health data? Or that reimbursement models are shifting from volume to value? Or that participating in a health information exchange could literally save their life?

This has to change--and who better to help patients understand how reform, changing reimbursement models and the explosion of healthcare data affect them than marketers and other communications experts?

But it's a catch-22, isn't it? Healthcare has to educate its patients about all of this, but patients really don't want to hear it.

Case in point: the recent kerfuffle over Gastonia, N.C.-based CaroMont Health's controversial "cheat death" wellness campaign. The idea was to get folks in Gaston County to take notice of the importance of wellness--the local population's health, by the way, compares poorly to the rest of the state and nation, according to CaroMont.  

"We are not saying we can stop death," CaroMont said in a statement last week. "What we are saying is that if you take an active part in your own health--being more active, making better nutritional choices, stop smoking--you can live a longer, healthier and ultimately happier life."

But the community, board members and staff took exception to the "cheat death" campaign tagline. Local pastors called it blasphemous.

"Our intent was never to offend or incite," CaroMont said in a statement.

You know what? Maybe it should have been.

Of course, there's a fine line between inciting action and offending people. But given how high the stakes are, I think it's OK to make them feel just a little bit uncomfortable.

Marketers, how are you handling this shift from marketing sick services to marketing wellness services, educating patients about health data and more? And do we need to give patients a gentle push into this new world? Or do they need a kick and a shove? - Gienna (@Gienna and on Google+)