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Pond Scum or Citron: What color is your hospital?

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, October 1, 2008

Sometimes we get so close to our own industry's jargon that we forget that those outside the healthcare system don't always speak the same lingo. Every industry does it. Car dealers don't sell used car anymore—they sell certified pre-owned vehicles. Grocery stores don't stock prunes, they sell dried plums. Catalogues don't describe a garment as green, they call it jade, emerald, fern, mint, citron, peridot, or stem. When you see a sweater in a catalogue described as "stem," what do you think?

Now put yourself in your customer's shoes. Do they know oncology means cancer and that neurology covers the spinal cord in addition to the brain? Do they know what you mean when you call your cardiac service line a heart academy or your ortho program a bone and joint institute or either one of them a center of excellence? Do you think that most people know the difference between a medical center and a hospital?

I'm guessing the average person either doesn't know or doesn't care. And those who do know the truth—that there really isn't a difference at all—think hospitals are just calling themselves a fancy but meaningless name, like saying they're stem when they're really just green.

So why do it? There are several reasons: to add cachet to the product, to avoid negative connotations, to instill consumer confidence in the service, and to stand apart from the competition. It's so much nicer to eat a dried plum than it is to eat a prune. And it's so much less frightening to get care at an academy than it is to be admitted to the hospital.

In the September issue of HealthLeaders magazine, I asked the experts if it makes a difference what you call organization or its service lines. Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet or sweeter?

Opinions were mixed, to say the least.

Susan Dubuque, president of Neathawk Dubuque & Packett in Richmond, VA, told me that consumers don't care what you call your cardiology program. Marketing multiple services under different names and brands causes confusion and is a waste of money.

"Consumers only have so many brain cells that they're going to devote to remembering anything concerning healthcare," she says in the article. "The more an organization splinters its brand identity into a zillion different parts . . . the more it dilutes the consumer's ability to digest the whole organization."

But Preston Gee, senior vice president of strategic planning and marketing for Trinity Health in Novi, MI, says the tactic can distinguish an organization or program. The strategy can work, he says, so long as it is based on research and you use wording that resonates with your audience.

In other words, if you must use a synonym for green, make sure it's something other than pond scum, toad, or moldy toast.


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