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5 Tips to Improve Community Perception

By Matt Rogers for HealthLeaders News, August 16, 2006
When it comes to their health, patients want the best treatment around. But the truth about where to find top-notch care is often blurred by misconceptions of bigger being better. Because rural and community healthcare centers lack a laundry list of services and are typically dwarfed by state-of-the-art metro facilities, they often are mistakenly considered to be second rate. Such impressions can potentially drive business out of town and into more urban markets.

Two common stereotypes shine a negative light on community healthcare facilities, says Allan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association. “The biggest misconception, of course, is that they’re second tier to their urban counterparts. Below that is the belief that they offer a lower level of care,” he says. In some instances, however, rural hospitals’ small size actually may lead to better quality of care, according to the University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center’s study, “The Environmental Context of Patient Safety and Medical Errors.” The study found that streamlined communication can help small rural facilities better identify problems and take corrective action, whereas the string of information in larger organizations can get mired in bureaucratic interference, increasing the probability of adverse events. Lower patient volumes in community hospitals also tend to produce better quality-of-care figures than larger facilities, although this may be due to smaller hospitals handling fewer complex invasive procedures, notes Morgan.

Instead of watching patients drive to more urban markets for healthcare, here are five marketing tips that can help rural and community hospitals improve community perception and keep those healthcare dollars in the local economy.

1. Don’t compete with the big dogs
John Gonda, director of marketing and planning at 113-bed Chelsea (Mich.) Community Hospital, has worked in both large and small healthcare environments, and says it is imperative that community hospitals not try to directly compete with larger organizations. “Community centers can’t lose focus of their role, which is to provide the necessary services that their community has a need for. There’s no need to try to compete on a larger scale,” Gonda explains.

2. Reach out to the community
Both Morgan and Gonda endorse the implementation of outreach programs to strengthen a community hospital’s reputation. Rural facilities need to convey the fact that they are a community asset, says Morgan. “You just can’t sustain a rural community without healthcare,” he adds. According to Gonda, rural centers should introduce themselves to their community before residents require medical attention--and outreach programs make this possible. “A rural hospital has to become a trusted partner in patients’ health,” he says. Health screenings, wellness programs and school interventions are just a few ways community healthcare organizations can market themselves outside hospital walls.

3. Partner with federal and state organizations
Unlike larger facilities, rural hospitals typically lack substantial budgets, so administering new technology and successfully executing outreach programs takes careful financial and practical consideration. “You almost can’t gamble. You need to get something that’s going to be a guaranteed return for the investment,” Gonda says. Morgan stresses the need to establish solid relationships with federal and state partners. For example, the NRHA holds networking and educational events that allow hospital executives and various organizations to discuss, for example, what types of community outreach programs, technology and marketing strategies have been working in specific communities around the country. “Having limited staff and resources doesn’t relegate rural hospitals to a second tier. It just means they have to be more creative in how they’re collecting information, and then, how they’re able to identify what will work for their facility,” says Morgan.

4. Don’t put off upgrades
Establishing relationships with organizations responsible for distributing grants and loans also enables hospitals to upgrade when necessary. Many rural centers were built with the federal Hill-Burton Act, which financed the construction of hundreds of hospitals in the late 1940s. Unfortunately, the physical perception of a care center can impact patients’ views, says Morgan. “A fountain or a nice reception room doesn’t translate into better quality care, but from a perception standpoint, data shows that some people believe it does.”

5. Keep staff happy
As the maxim suggests--looks aren’t everything. While rural hospitals devote much of their time and money to developing marketing strategies that attract customers from the outside, Gonda says more needs to be done to appeal to physicians on the inside. “Physician loyalty goes a long way. At Chelsea we have very loyal physicians--but we wouldn’t have that if we didn’t have the quality of care to back it up,” he says. Morgan agrees, and says that a hospital’s CEO is also a key in-house element that is responsible for boosting and maintaining an organization’s reputation. “The ability to which a CEO can become a driving force within the community helps project the hospital as a resource and as an asset to the area,” he explains.

Matt Rogers is assistant news editor of HealthLeaders Online News. He can be reached at mrogers@healthleadersmedia.com