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Lessons from European Healthcare Marketing (Or the Lack Thereof)

Marianne Aiello, for HealthLeaders Media, July 28, 2010

While I was traveling in Europe earlier this month, I spoke to three people who each had very different experiences with the universal healthcare systems in Portugal and England. One visited an emergency room, one stopped by a clinic, and another went through a series of treatments for a long-term affliction. By speaking to all of them about their hospital stays, I realized there are many insights American healthcare marketers can glean from their European counterparts.

The first person I chatted healthcare with was a girl in Lisbon who went to the hospital for a nasty jellyfish sting she acquired in Nice. She came back with a bandaged leg, antibiotics, and a €300 medical bill (about $390 U.S.). She lamented that she had to wait three hours in a crowded and hot emergency room and that the doctors and nurses were rude. She chose that hospital because the hostel staff recommended it.

Later, I discussed European healthcare with a woman met in Barcelona. She got sick after returning home to London and went to a National Health Service clinic for a prescription. Her visit was quick and free, so she had no complaints. She chose the clinic because her flatmate recommended it and because it was near her work.

I also discussed differences between American and European healthcare in England with the parents of a little boy who recently took a bad fall that resulted in a broken leg, a couple of surgeries, and several months in a wheelchair. Despite the months-long ordeal, his parents said they had a great experience at the hospital where their son was treated, which was recommended by his pediatrician.

Except for the fact that these visits, procedures, and prescriptions cost little-to-no money, most of the experiences could have taken place in any given American hospital. But what struck me most about my friends' narratives is how they chose where they went for treatment; it was as if it were predetermined and not much of a choice at all.

This comes down to most interesting difference about healthcare marketing and advertising in Europe—in the latter, there really isn't any. Of course, this is largely due to a lack of competition (as we know it, anyway) caused by nationalized healthcare—but some countries do allow hospitals to promote themselves.

For example, in 2008 the United Kingdom's Department of Health announced that public British hospitals "will be able to promote their services and successes— such as low MRSA rates—though only within strict rules of practice designed to protect the NHS brand," according to The London Times. But, judging from the article's subhead, "Era of brain surgery sponsored by Nike may be just around the corner," the public was wary of the idea. And it hasn't seemed to have caught on.

In fact, each person I talked to about healthcare abroad chose their hospital because a doctor or a friend recommended it. Furthermore, none could recall seeing a hospital ad in Europe.

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