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Marketing: Imaging Wars

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Magazine, June 11, 2009
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Hospitals arm themselves with technology to attract physicians and consumers and keep the competition at bay.

When the 16-slice CT scan debuted, physicians and hospitals coveted it for its amazing clinical capabilities. Then came the 64-slice CT, and while some wondered if the advances were significant enough to justify the expense of an upgrade—not to mention the increase in data storage and other support requirements—others were running the numbers to see if they could be the first in the market to own the latest imaging wonder.

And when more or less everyone had either a 16-slice or 64-slice CT, lo and behold, along came the 264-slice CT. And digital mammography. And 3D ultrasound. And dexa scans.

The competition
Hospitals that wanted to stay competitive had little choice but to join the imaging arms race. And that included The Chester County Hospital, in West Chester, PA.

"Our hospital was a little late to the market with some of the advanced radiology technology that some of our peer hospitals had. So for the last few years we've been gearing up for bringing online these higher-capability machines," says Colleen Leonard Leyden, director of corporate marketing and public relations at the 220-staffed-bed hospital.

"You always want to try to keep your competitive edge. So we want to make sure that we're offering the same products that our competitors are."

The hospital has four main service lines: cardiovascular, oncology, women's health, and orthopedics. Over the past year, imaging has emerged as a fifth, in part because it is so interconnected with the other services and because of its potential for high returns. "Given the current healthcare climate, we've been tightening our belts here. We had to be deliberate in our spending and we had to do it in a way that was most economically effective for the institution," Leyden says.

Hospital CEOs across the country seem inclined to agree. In the 2009 HealthLeaders Media Industry Survey, 15% of CEOs said imaging has the greatest potential to produce strong revenue growth in the next three years. It ranked third overall, behind cardiology (23%) and orthopedics (16%). Marketers rated imaging slightly lower at about 10%, fifth behind orthopedics, cardiology, oncology, and neurosciences. All of the top-ranked services rely on imaging for diagnoses.

The physicians
Advanced imaging technology also arms hospitals for battle in another competitive arena: physician recruitment and retention.

"If the equipment is not a central part of their clinical practice, it might not be a make-or-break decision, but it will create a perception in their minds about how state-of-the art the facility is and if compared to another similar offer—all other things being fairly equal—then this could be an important criterion," says Allison McCarthy, principal of Barlow/McCarthy, a hospital-physician strategy consultancy. "The importance of the technology seems to be weighted based on the career aspirations of the physician. So if they did some special training in a particular area—such as CT imaging—then their position selection is highly dependent upon the technology being in place."

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