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What’s the Word?

Rick Johnson, for HealthLeaders Media, July 8, 2008

Healthcare providers have long depended on consumer word-of-mouth, even before it became one of those hot marketing buzzwords. After physician referrals, consumer-to-consumer referrals are perhaps your most powerful marketing tool.

Laurie Wilshusen, the word-of-mouth expert for Mayo Clinic, once told me that "one word-of-mouth recommendation is worth 600 media impressions." Mayo is healthcare's leader in this area of marketing, so she knows what she's talking about.

It's no different for global hospitals. The catalyst for the medical travel industry's growth has really been its successful interactions with early adopters. After all, leading all those feature stories about medical travel in the mainstream press this year are anecdotes of satisfied healthcare consumers.

The one problem with word-of-mouth marketing is that it assumes you already have a steady flow of customers from your target regions. For instance, if North America is the region global hospitals covet—and it's safe to say that it is—there simply aren't enough people from this region who have experienced medical travel first-hand.

But some industry leaders are taking steps get around this and show the patient experience to key stakeholders. The Medical Tourism Association has recently produced a short promotional video (this link requires Windows Media Player) about an American who travels to Costa Rica for double-knee replacement surgery. The 10-minute segment that I watched lets you see what medical travel is like from the patient's point-of-view.

The patient—identified as "Bob"—gives us some personal insights as he experiences care at a Costa Rica hospital. "My actual blood work was 12 minutes from the time I walked into the hospital until the time it was finished," he says.

And there is an amusing moment when Bob lumbers on his two bad knees from the x-ray department to consult immediately with a physician. "A doctor waiting for me?" he says. "That's a new one!"

Bob, who we're told lives in Orlando, FL, and has some form of health insurance, saved about $80,000 by having the procedure in Costa Rica. In the end, the procedure is a success, and Bob tells us that it was well worth his time, effort, and money, especially considering that he could never afford this level of care in the United States.

Jonathan Edelheit, president of the Medical Tourism Association, told me the video shows that Americans are willing to travel overseas and love the experience. "You would be amazed by the reaction we are getting from employers and insurance agents who have watched this," he says.

And that's just what the industry needs to do—get more of these first-hand testimonials to the public to generate that word-of-mouth buzz. Having great doctors, international accreditation, and getting good ink from the mainstream press is no substitute for actually seeing someone like you who experiences the ups and downs of medical travel and can attest to its quality and value.

For global hospitals, the way to sustain the buzz the industry is generating is to take a lesson from the healthcare marketers at places like Mayo and Cleveland Clinic. Craft marketing strategies that focus on continuing the relationship you have with past patients in an effort to create loyalists, like Bob, who can do the marketing for you. Do whatever you can to make it easy for these satisfied customers to get the word out about their experiences.


Rick Johnson is senior online editor of HealthLeaders Media. He may be reached at rjohnson@healthleadersmedia.com.
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