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Notes from SHSMD: The Economy, Strategic Planning, and a Little Gossip

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, September 24, 2008

It would be overly-dramatic to say that breaking news of the latest financial crises cast a pall over this year's annual meeting of the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development. Marketers are a great crowd to hang out with—always helpful, friendly, and interesting to talk to. But I think it's fair to say the mood at the gathering in San Francisco was more subdued than in years past.

"It's kind of odd to be sitting here today talking to you about growth," said Mark Grube, a partner with Kaufman, Hall & Associates in Skokie, IL, during a session titled Achieving Growth and Scale in Healthcare: Best-practices strategies for hospitals and health systems.

But in tight economic times it's more important than ever for strategic marketers to direct their organizations' resources to the right projects.

"Profitability and cash flow are going to be absolutely critical to fund our strategies," he said.

Big plans for the future

Case in point: Scott & White in Temple, TX, has an aggressive growth strategy. Its long-term goal is to be on par with such brand names as Mayo and the Cleveland Clinic. In fact, they want to do those organizations one better: The organization's vision, said Peter Brumleve, chief strategy and marketing officer, is to be the most trusted and valued name in American healthcare.

To achieve that vision, the organization will re-launch, rebuild, and invest in various profitable service lines, including cancer, cardiology, orthopedics, and neurology. They're also refocusing on building physician referrals. If you really are going to be renowned for your clinical care, Brumleve says, you have to have a very large geographic sphere.

The care and feeding of your growth strategy

There are several common traits of companies outside of healthcare that are pursuing an aggressive growth strategy, according to Grube:

  • The ability to evaluate growth opportunities and make decisions is a management competency.
  • The companies set a plan and put the energy and resources into making it happen.
  • They understand it's a marathon, not a sprint.
  • They have an innovation pipeline and are constantly thinking about new ideas, services, and products, and they put the best ideas on the table.
  • They take a balanced portfolio approach to existing and new businesses and geographic markets.

But are such strategies applicable to healthcare organizations, which have a mission to serve patients first and foremost? You bet, says Grube.

In order to sustain the organization, you've got to be thinking about growth, he says. And for financial success, you must have the capital to invest in services in order to serve the community well.

Strategic plans both lofty and practical

Is your organization continuously focused on its long-term plan, or does it have vision amnesia?

A lofty long-term strategy is great, said the speakers at the "Hit Us With Your Best Shot for Strategic Planning Professionals" session, but you also have to have a tactical plan in place to get it done.

One way to do that is to have an annual operational plan in addition to the strategic plan, they said.

Emerson Hospital in Concord, MA, recently transitioned from a three-year plan to a 10-year plan. In the meantime, however, leaders at the organization (and, by extension, their staffs) must meet quarterly goals based on the themes of the long-term vision, such clinical excellence, quality, patient satisfaction, and information technology.

"And, by the way, we are all compensated based on our progress in implementing that plan," says Vice President Christine Gallery. "That's a very effective way to keep us on track."

Another (slightly simpler) way to keep the organization focused on the future, Gallery says, is to mention it at every opportunity and explain everything you do within the context of the strategic plan. "Always start your sentences that way: 'According to our strategic plan,'" Gallery said.

West Coast healthcare ads

What's the difference between the East Coast and the West Coast? Well, if you're interested in hospital, health system, and health plan ads, the West Coast has the East Coast beat, hands-down. Since I arrived in San Francisco, I've been treated to a vast array of ads that are sophisticated, engaging, and even funny, while the ads I see at home in Massachusetts tend to be a little, well, boring. I'm guessing that's because the market in Boston and its surrounding suburbs is a mite more conservative than the market in San Francisco and other California environs. Effective marketing is all about speaking to your audience in their language, of course. But you also have to get and hold their attention. Kaiser Permanente's Thrive campaign does just that. Sutter Health has a great TV campaign running right now, as does Blue Shield of California. So if you're even in the San Francisco area, make sure you don't just ride the cable cars, but set some time aside to watch a little TV, too.

If Hedda Hopper covered SHSMD

HealthLeaders Media doesn't have a gossip columnist on staff, but if we did, her notebook item would have read something like this: "We hear a certain group of late-night revelers got stuck in the hotel elevator on Wednesday night. Luckily, the group was well-versed in crisis communications and one quick-thinking marketer among them used his cell phone to call for help. Further good luck, a registered nurse was on board. All's well that ends well: Aside from a mild rebuke from the hotel staff for overcrowding the elevator, the group was quickly rescued and went on their way—in separate elevators, of course." OK, it wasn't exactly late night (more like early evening, just after the opening reception) and they weren't exactly reveling (more like heading upstairs after the opening reception). But it would still have made a great gossip column item.


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


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