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Live from SHSMD: The More Things Change

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders News, October 5, 2007

So it turns out that marketers in specialty hospitals have the same questions as marketers in every other kind of healthcare organization. I learned this at the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development's annual round-table luncheon on Thursday, a highlight of the group's annual conference, currently under way in Washington, DC.

There were more than 100 tables at this year's event, each with a different topic of discussion, from branding to physician sales to marketing strategies for rural hospitals. I ended up sitting in on "Niche Marketing: Building Relationships, Driving Referrals", led by Gail Solomon, director of corporate communications at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, NJ. Among the questions that came up during the discussion:

  • Why are physicians so reluctant to help with marketing efforts?
  • Why is it that the directors who run the least profitable and lowest-priority programs are the most demanding of our time and effort?
  • Why don't leaders understand that touting "top 100" status and pictures of staffs posed like football teams in front of the building are outdated and ineffective-and how can we convince them to take a little creative risk and try something new?

Sound familiar? I hear these complaints from marketers at hospitals and health systems of every shape and size. Meanwhile, participants at the table shared a variety of tips for marketing specialized services that--like those complaints about indifferent physicians, stubborn leaders, and demanding service line directors--could really apply in any setting. What's helped Kessler, says Solomon, is that they know who they are--and they communicate this well to their customers (in their case, referring physicians).

Internal communications is important, too, she said. If the staff doesn't deliver on patients' service expectations--if Aunt Tilly has a bad experience--it won't matter how many primary care physicians refer to the hospital. Patients who've heard horror stories simply won't go.

Of course the idea is to get Aunt Tilly and her primary care physician to think well of you and your specialists. One of the ways to do this is to submit articles to the media on topics that relate to the service line you want to promote.

For example, you might give advice on how to avoid injury while shoveling snow, using one of your orthopedists as a source. "It costs nothing but a little time," Solomon says. "And the local papers love that."You should also send out press releases promoting specialists' awards, accomplishments and presentations. "It builds the reputation of the hospital as well," she says.

Using content, hospitals can position themselves and their physicians as experts for relatively low cost. Just don't make it too painfully promotional, she warned.

In fact, this low-cost strategy could be a solution to the other problems that were raised around the table at the session. Want to give a demanding but low-priority service line some attention? Some free promotion could help. Ask the specialists in that department to submit content and you're even taking some of the burden off of your own staff.

Asking physicians to suggest topics for expert articles is also a way to get them involved in marketing efforts. After all, what physician doesn't like to be considered an expert? And if they won't step forward and write the articles themselves, you can always either quote them in an article that you write or ghost write an article for them.

As for the CEO who insists on "top 100" positioning and bland ads that look just like the competitor's down the road? Sorry, the luncheon was only an hour long.


In other news, Kandace McLaughlin reports from SHSMD on a unique campaign to get hospital employees to wash their hands, and Gienna Shaw discusses how honesty and emotion can help hospital advertising.


Gienna Shaw is an editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at gshaw@healthleadersmedia.com.

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