ER marketing: Health system uses mailers to advertise heart attack care

As some hospitals across the country turn to old-school marketing techniques to bring in targeted patients, a Tennessee-based hospital chain uses mailers to alert patients about what emergency department (ED) to turn to if they have a heart attack, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

HCA Healthcare sent out mailers that let Pinellas County, Florida, residents know its five hospitals are ready to handle heart attacks, according to the article. But critics wonder if the new mailers could lead to care delays--as the mailers recommended potential patients seek care at HCA facilities further away from hospitals actually closer to the patients' addresses, and every second counts when it comes to treating heart attacks. "You really want to be at the closest appropriate place," Howard Mell, M.D., a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, told the Times. "Minutes matter."

Critical patients are rushed to the closest hospital regardless of preference in Pinellas County, but stable patients can choose a hospital if it's within 30 minutes of the scene, although paramedics recommend the closest hospital that specializes in heart attack services like balloon angioplasty, according to the article.

Marketing ED services is a challenge because patients don't really shop around for services until they need it, but when the advertising campaign is successful, it can lead to overcrowding in emergency rooms by patients who don't have an emergency, the Times reported. So far it's unclear how the mailers will affect HCA's ED business--last year, HCA's two top hospitals for ED patient visits saw 29,066 and 23,573 patients respectively.

Neighboring hospitals aren't concerned about marketing ED services, as where patients end up depends mainly on emergency medical services protocols, said Tommy Inzina, Bay Care Health System's chief operating officer.

Although hospitals increasingly use social media and technology to communicate with patients, sometimes the best and most effective way to communicate a message is person-to-person, Hospital Impact blogger Nancy Crawley Jean wrote.

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