Rethink healthcare marketing to foster patient engagement

This illustration from the company Root does a good job in summing up today's healthcare environment. Notice the people in the raft--those are patients struggling to hang on in the turbulent tides of healthcare. Anthony Cirillo

I once went rafting in Alaska and the preamble to the trip was filled with all of the what-if scenarios that could happen, like if you capsize. My mother-in-law was terrified and didn't want to be there.

You see, with bundled payments, value-based purchasing, readmission penalties and more, outside forces are saying "move care outside the hospital; we don't want patients there." The same forces in long-term care are moving services to the home with aging in place. And like my mother-in-law in the raft, people are terrified to become patients.

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Yet most of healthcare marketing is about getting people in the door. And our profession has been good at doing that.

That said, little has changed in how it has been done for 25+ years. Mass media touting features and benefits is still the norm. Some sophistication has been added. Social media has been embraced by perhaps 25 percent of hospitals. But often it only amplifies the same messages.

Marketers try to use price, quality and patient satisfaction to their advantage. Yet, since many organizations are fractions apart in their scores, the comparisons become meaningless.

This is the current context and we need to change it.

People need to be guided to self-responsibility and wellness or they will continue their old habits. And with more advances in medicine, people actually rely on you more and themselves even less. Just see what Bill Santamour has to say about giving boomers a kick in their pants.

Of course adopting a strategy of wellness is risky. It goes against today's financial model. Even the Bundled Payments for Care Improvement Initiative only makes a stab at true bundling.

For a better idea, look at the Medicare Advantage model (even with the payment cuts recently announced). I'll spare you the Wayne Gretzky quote of skating to where the puck is going, not where it is. (Couldn't resist.)

But you get the idea. Things are shifting and there is a larger societal issue at play.

America's 50 and older population will reach 100 million this year. And hospitals do not have the resources to take care of a population that doesn't want to take care of itself. So educate people and enroll them as partners in their care.

I see a healthcare marketer's role as I see my own when working with CEOs. Help them connect the dots of the healthcare continuum and manage the shift from sickness to wellness. If you start doing this you can:

  • Rise above the fray and the "me too" marketing.
  • Connect marketing and patient experience so you can both change the experience and tell your story. And while doing so, shift the conversation from patient-centered care to person centeredness.
  • Look at business development beyond the hospital walls.
  • Make a huge impact in society by helping people understand the need for what I call educated aging, the notion that we need to prepare sooner in life--physically, financially and emotionally--to avoid the current "crisis as you age" culture.

Why is this important? Well imagine the impact in your own life of a healthier society.

  • You would live longer. And that is good news for boomers who reportedly have worse health than their parents had at the same age.
  • As a caregiver to a loved one you would have less stress and better health. As many as 70 percent to 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians result from stress related disorders, according to the American Institute of Stress.
  • Your older parents and grandparents would be contributing members of society longer. They would enjoy quality of life as they age. The value of intergenerational relationships would benefit society.
  • Healthcare expenditures would drop, saving the economy and you and me money. (For an eye-opener, read this NYTarticle on hospital prices. We cannot sustain the current system. As the author states, "healthcare is eating away at our economy and our treasury.")

Start imaging the societal impact your organization can have and imagine marketing playing a key role. Instead of measuring page views, mentions and retweets, start imaging the impact you can have in decreasing chronic disease, lowering mortality rates and actually making peoples' lives better.

With the sequester, don't be surprised if marketing goes on the chopping block. It is imperative that marketers not only slash their budgets to survive but also shift their approach.

Oh and when you're ready to get serious, give me a shout.

Anthony Cirillo, FACHE, ABC, is president of Fast Forward Consulting, which specializes in experience management and strategic marketing for healthcare facilities. He also is theexpert guide in Assisted Living for About.com.

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