The Future of Healthcare Marketing: A New Series

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Creative Outhouse

This episode will launch our new healthcare series. Listen to learn how marketers can help turn around a healthcare system in crises.

Episode 39: A new healthcare marketing series on Marketing Upheaval

Hey, this is Rudy Fernandez from Creative Outhouse. This mini-episode will launch our new healthcare marketing series. We all know that the COVID crisis has been devastating to providers. We’re going to talk about that in these episodes, but the crisis has also accelerated some much-needed change. We’re going to talk about that, too.

Most importantly I’m going to talk about where marketing for providers has been and where it needs to go. Most providers have marketing departments full of expert strategists and brilliant communicators. But for too long they are treated like order takers. Well, marketing folks, this is your time to shine and show what you can do. Because we are entering a new era in healthcare communications and the providers who are going to succeed moving forward will be the ones who embrace the new world in which marketing plays a vital role. It’s time for the marketing departments to demonstrate what they can do. And what that is, in many instances is as important as what the medical folks do. Yup, I said that. Welcome to Marketing Upheaval

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Before I begin, here’s a quick plug if healthcare and healthcare marketing is your bag,  like mine check out some previous healthcare episodes, like our conversation about Public Health Marketing with Jana Thomas, our talk about the consumerization of healthcare with Miranda Madar and the two great episodes on the role of providers in communities with the CMO of Bon Secours Mercy Health, Sandra Mackey (Part 1 and Part 2).  You can find those at So let’s get started.

Healthcare Marketing in a Crisis

I’ve been involved in healthcare marketing for all of my career. And it is by far the most fascinating category. I love it. No industry goes through more changes, touches more lives, or has that crazy mix of science and emotion two things you need for great creative, than healthcare.

Upheaval has been the norm in healthcare for the last several years. I would say it was in crisis before the crisis, and frankly, providers were resistant to change. And then, COVID hit, and the healthcare industry found itself in uncharted waters, in a fog… with sea monsters everywhere…. and a hole in the boat.  I think I’ve extended that metaphor enough.

With providers struggling with how to get their procedures going and trying to figure out how they will proceed operationally, a lot of them think this is not the time to be marketing.  But I’d like to challenge that notion. In fact, it is exactly the time.

Healthcare Messaging

First, let’s talk about what’s going on.

So what’s going on in healthcare?  Well, let’s see. Businesses got hit with the equivalent of a nuclear bomb. And now as we start to crawl out of the rubble, we still don’t know what’s changed, how should we behave, will we be hit again. And the industry at the epicenter of all of this is healthcare. Ironically, healthcare messaging has been all the rage. Think about it: every company, every product and service has had to infuse a public health message into their marketing. Most, so far, have not done so well with it as we discussed that in an earlier episode on public health.

Embracing the Changes in Healthcare

For health care marketers, let’s start with the good news.  The crisis has forced the industry and our society to rethink what a healthcare system ought to be. It accelerated our exploration into technologies like email exchanges, chat, Telemedicine and at-home testing. Providers are now communicating more with peers in different locations about best practices. This crisis forced providers to find new ways to improve the patient experience. And I think that process will continue to evolve and grow.I’m going to talk about how marketing will play a bigger role in inpatient care in a minute. But I do need to mention the bad news about COVID.

Healthcare as a Business

Imagine this. At a time when we need our healthcare facilities the most, they have been forced to lay people off. It’s estimated that about 80% of all medical procedures were stopped during our shutdown. Look around any hospital and it’s easy to see it’s an expensive endeavor to run. Now imagine you lose 80% of your revenue… The American Hospital Association reports that hospitals are bleeding more than $50 billion per month.

So with those kinds of losses of courses they’ve had layoffs and furloughs. And needless to say, marketing budgets have been cut. So what happens now? Does the pent up demand suddenly bring in all those delayed procedures? Or does the high unemployment mean that fewer people are insured and can’t afford them? Will people be hesitant to go to a provider for fear of the coronavirus? The answer to all three is, it depends. How does that all shake out?

Well, we’re getting mixed signals from people we talk to. But one thing is certain regardless of what happens in the short term, healthcare has changed and healthcare marketing needs to evolve into something new.

Let’s be honest, providers don’t often let marketing departments take the lead. They’re viewed mostly as the people who push out the standard messages which I’ll trash later. Well, Providers, it’s time to remove the shackles from your marketing teams. Because I believe we’ve reached a point where hospitals and other providers have no choice but to see marketing for what it is: it’s more than just a way to tell patients about your hospital, it’s a service in and of itself that can improve patients’ health.

Let’s talk about hospital marketing for a moment.

An Opportunity for Great Healthcare Marketing

Okay so we get it, bad stuff is happening. But here’s why I’m optimistic.

Before the pandemic, Hospital and provider advertising sucked. I’m sorry that was probably too abrupt. I just jumped right into that. Seriously let me back up. Do the music thing again.

Before the pandemic, the way providers viewed marketing was limited and created less than imaginative messaging. That’s better, right?

Let’s look at the cause.

The fee for service model is the core of the healthcare problem both before and after the COVID crisis. It’s biggest flaw is that it’s transactional. So pretty much the only way a provider gets paid is if you get sick and see her or him. That system is why hospitals have to play this Jeckle and Hyde character that cares for you one moment then hands you over to the collection people the next. The system is also why during the crisis providers are bleeding money, because there have been no services, so no fees. And all of this leads to bad advertising and bad marketing.

Hospital Messaging

Here’s what I mean…let’s focus on hospitals since they are the biggest marketers in terms of providers, but I’m also talking to the free-standing service providers and large practices. Because of the business model hospital marketing has been pigeonholed into two types of messaging: 1) “We’re the best!” and 2) “We really care.”

“We’re the best” is the standard chest-beating stuff you see. We’re ranked # 1 in “blabidy boops”. The classic show lots of people in lab coats looking determined. Show off some cool technology maybe, a lab coat guy pointing at something on a screen. You know, you’ve seen it. The reason for this is the fee for service… they want you in the door. It’s all about them and that’s it. It’s not any warmer than a car commercial sporting a JD Power trophy.

The other direction is “We care”. Cue emotional music… a provider holding someone’s hand or helping a patient while wearing a sweet smile.  Throw in testimonials of people telling their stories about how the hospital saved their lives. These are very sweet and they are also Marketing 101 type simulated third-party endorsements. I mean, come on, are there any providers who don’t have a successful case study? I hope not.

Hospitals as Centers for Community Health

Because of the business model, the goal has been to get you in when you’re sick, then get you out. Sorry to sound cold, but it’s how the business model is set up.

What happened with this crisis? Providers showed they are so much more than the corner surgery store. They demonstrated that they are centers for community health and well-being.  Not a place for healthcare transactions, a place that exists to keep us safe and healthy. Not money-grubbing golf playing docs, but people who risk their lives to save ours. To give you an idea of how the narrative has shifted, and I mentioned in an earlier episode… before this crisis if you began a Google search with the phrase, “doctors are”, you would get auto fill-ins like “Overpaid, overrated, quacks.” Now you type that and you get words like “heroes and superheroes.”  Our view of what providers are has shifted and the best thing they can do is keep it where it is. Keep that image of the people and the place you rely on for health. Not that place you go when you’re sick.

I’m not saying that providers will stop having a fee for service model. But this alternative way of perceiving a provider could be the key to how providers communicate with their patients and their communities.

Leadership in Healthcare Communications

How do we take this improved image and take it further? Now is the time for providers to reach out to their local communities not just to tell them about services, but to help ease their fears. Right now people are worried because they get mixed messages about COVID. Who else should take the lead in helping the local community feel more at ease and guide the conversation about health in their communities? Providers have the opportunity to guide us. About caring for yourself and protecting yourself, and others, easing our stress about going out or having a procedure performed.  Talking to us about Telemedicine, when it works and when it doesn’t. About so many things we all desperately need and want to know. And these needs go beyond the COVID messaging.

New Opportunities to Engage with Patients

Imagine if people turned to hospitals for health care and not just sick care. Imagine if you could subscribe to a provider to monitor your health data via wearables, give you direction on home testing kits, hook you up with ways to help you quit smoking or lose weight. With every new health fear comes a new opportunity to engage and inform and ease concerns. That’s a relationship rather than a transaction.

Your marketing then becomes about people and their daily lives, not just when they are sick.

It would lead to some ongoing and pretty cool marketing and communications. An engagement that is about an individual and about living a better life. A relationship based on earned trust and not chest-beating or testimonials from people you’ve never met.

And people want this. Wearables and mobile devices to monitor health is growing at more than 122% per year. And year after year when asked with whom they would hare health information on the wearables. 90% of respondents say their healthcare providers. People are ready. We just need providers to be as well.

Integrated Healthcare Marketing Campaigns

And here’s the best thing about this type of relationship… When people do need those procedures, whom are they going to trust to guide them? The providers who have been there with them the whole time. I know I’m ready to create those integrated campaigns.  Because it will lead to creativity that is genuine and truly connects.

Marketing can also improve a patient’s health. As you may know, we are moving more towards a value-based care model. That is, provider compensation will depend on whether the patient’s health improves. What’s one of the biggest physicians face? Patient adherence. Well, as someone who has been involved with hugely successful public health behavior change campaigns, I can tell you there are ways to get people to take on the behaviors that will improve their health.

Right now the method is to tell patients what they need to do and the assumption is they will do it. Well, we all know that’s not true.

My good friend is an endocrinologist and he tells his patients with diabetes that unless they monitor their blood sugar, take their insulin, change their diet and lost weight, they will become blind, their limbs become impotent and die painfully. Believe it or not, of many of his patients, that does not work. Why?

Because information isn’t motivation.

Otherwise, we would all be in shape, no one would drink and I would obey the speed limit.  It takes a marketing expert who understands the deeper motivations who can create messaging that will help people change their behavior to improve their lives.  We’ve done it for the CDC for some really tough things so I know it can be done.

I’m ready to see marketing within provider organizations take a bigger role and not only improve the patient volume, but the patient health and well-being as well.

If you are, too, reach out to us and let’s talk.

Up Next on Marketing Upheaval

Our next episode is with Kathryn Smith from Medshape to talk about elective and orthopedic procedures. An area that took a big hit these last few months. Don’t miss that.

Our show is produced by Susan Cooper. I want to thank Jeff Silverman and Kelly Frazier Johnson for helping with this episode. That’s it for this episode of Marketing Upheaval.  Remember, if the current state of marketing has you confused, don’t worry. It will all change.

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