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Healthcare's Dirty (Business) Secret

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, August 20, 2008

It's pretty rare that I have a hard time forming an opinion on any given topic, but I'm conflicted about the latest healthcare marketing controversy. At issue: Should newspapers and hospitals team up to provide healthcare content? A number of arrangements have drawn fire of late—including a newspaper that "sold" its health section to a local hospital, which then provided content for the section, and a TV station that had an exclusive arrangement to run stories that one of its local hospitals suggested.

Now two journalism trade groups have condemned the practice. The Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists are urging media outlets to avoid arrangements with hospitals that improperly influence healthcare coverage, calling such partnerships unethical and saying they interfere with independent news coverage of healthcare.

I've been on the fence about this one for a while because I can see both sides so clearly. As a reporter, I cringe at the thought of allowing any organization to influence editorial content, especially if there's money involved. As a reporter who covers healthcare marketing, I think sponsoring a special section on health in the local newspaper is a smart idea.

And it's not like this is anything new: Local newspapers run "advertorial" content all the time. Those wedding, parenting, real estate, and vacation inserts are a vehicle for businesses to promote their services. The articles in those sections aren't hard-hitting news; they're thrown together to make money for both the newspaper and its advertisers.

Apparently, it's OK for florists, baby furniture salesmen, Realtors, and travel agents to make money. But hospitals and health systems are supposed to be above all that. Newspapers, too.

In fact, newspapers and healthcare organizations have a lot in common. They're each a business that has to pretend it's not a business and both industries are struggling financially.

Newspapers and hospitals are both viewed by the public as altruistic organizations that exist first and foremost to serve the public. They shouldn't be in it for the money—hospitals should be saving lives and newspapers should be exposing corruption. They should not be wasting their money on such vulgarities as marketing, advertising, and public relations.

It's as if the public has no notion that it costs money to run a hospital (or a newspaper, for that matter). If no one signs the checks and pays the bills, lives go unsaved and corruption goes unexposed.

So where is the line between right and wrong, here? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.

You'll probably never convince the public that a hospital is, in fact, a business. But you can't stop marketing and just hope the patients will wander in on their own, either. You can't stop paying the bills and hope the lights stay on.

While I'm figuring it out, I suggest you start being a little more careful with your ad buys. And transparent in your relationships. And go on pretending that your hospital doesn't need money to operate.


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