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Marketing: Turning Elective into Mandatory

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Tactical marketing can prompt a pathway to profitable procedures during and after the recession.

When the economy stumbles, consumers suddenly discover the meaning of "elective" and put their joint, weight loss, and cosmetic surgeries on hold. But once (and sometimes before) the markets rebound and these potential patients are ready to schedule their procedures, you need to ensure that they think of your organization first.

"What you can do between now and when patients come back is continue to focus on building your brand and building relationships with customers," says Karen Corrigan, chief strategy officer of The Strategy Group at Navvis & Company, a national healthcare management consultancy in Norfolk, VA. "If there are fewer elective procedures overall being done in your market, the way you're going to grow in volume and business is to attract more of the procedures in the market to your organization."

Leaders at St. Mary Mercy Hospital in Livonia, MI, have a brand-promoting marketing strategy in place that has kept patients flowing to its Michigan Bariatric Institute during the downturn, despite being located in one of the country's most economically ravaged states. The institute, which opened in 2005, saw patient volume increase 60% in the past year, jumping from 136 surgeries during fiscal year '08 to 227 surgeries during fiscal year '09.

"We have anecdotally heard of folks who have canceled elective surgeries because of economic reasons or concerns about being off work and the fragility of their job, but overall we are on an increasing trend," says David Spivey, president and CEO of the 304-staffed-bed hospital. "We've been able to counterbalance the economic tide."

Spivey attributes St. Mary's success to two tactics: emphasizing minimally invasive techniques in advertising and promoting the organization's bariatric expertise in a series of educational seminars.

"When you get into a down economy, there is a greater fear of losing your job. People they don't want to be off for a lengthy period of time," says Greg Sears, St. Mary's service line administrator for surgical services.

"There's new technology that allows a person to recover quicker and return to work faster, so we've done a lot of free educational seminars to promote those technologies and educate the community."

Educational seminars and other community events are ideal ways to market a healthcare organization during a slow economy because they can be executed with little cost to the consumer or the hospital.

"Screenings and community events are great ways to capture individuals at a point where need is identified and you can get them into these services on an earlier basis," Corrigan says. "These are very tactical approaches, but they've got a lot of merit to them."

St. Mary's patient volume grew about 1% across the board in 2008, which Spivey attributes to the success of the bariatric institute and its community marketing program.

"We have focused our advertising on bariatric surgery and joint replacement services and minimally invasive capabilities that are most exclusively elective surgery," he says. "While we've actually reduced our overall advertising spend, we've maintained support for programmatic advertising."

St. Mary's is holding off the economic tide, and Spivey says he anticipates an even stronger elective program.

"We expect to see higher volumes once the economy recovers," he says. "It seems that volumes have been on a bit of an uptick, so some of that elective activity that has been deferred has been coming back."

The key to sustainable success for any healthcare organization in this economy, whether patient volume is slumping or not, is to persist in marketing elective procedures.

"It's a good growth investment, and backing off could put you behind as the recovery starts to set in," Corrigan says. "Try to be prepared to move into the market relatively quickly when you start to see those recovery signals come back."

Marianne Aiello

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