Marketing to Diverse Populations? Get Real.

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, December 3, 2008

I'm going to come right out and say it: If you're in a market with a large Spanish-speaking population and your response is to publish a Spanish-language version of your hospital's newsletter or boast that you hablo Español at the bottom of your newspaper ads, you're wasting your time and money. And you're not fooling anyone into thinking you understand the needs of patients who come from "different" cultures, either.

In fact, I'm going to go a step further. If you serve a community with a large immigrant population it is not enough to hire a couple of customer service reps to answer the phone in their language. It's not enough to hire a few staff members and clinicians from the same ethnic or cultural group. Don't get me wrong. It's a start. It's just not enough.

In order to serve special populations you must understand them. And I mean really understand them. And that means taking the time to talk to them, to ask them what they want, to find out their needs. You must discover how they want to be treated—both medically and emotionally and culturally.

That's what New York Downtown Hospital in Lower Manhattan did. With an Asian population that makes up more than 80% of its customer base, cultural sensitivity is at the very heart of its mission—and its market strategy. "We don't want to lose any patients to our competitors," Jeffrey Menkes, president and CEO of the 180-licensed-bed hospital, said in the November issue of HealthLeaders magazine (Who are the People in Your Neighborhood?).

The hospital didn't just throw together a few programs and hope for the best. It created a comprehensive strategy for how to best serve the Asian community based on market research, including the good old fashioned kind—talking to its customers.

The hospital didn't hire a few people who speak Chinese—more than 40% of the staff speaks a Chinese dialect. And it doesn't just wish and hope for the right applicants to appear at the door—it actively recruits them.

It's a whole-hospital, long-term effort, Menkes says. "One of the things we don't want to do is set up that mentality that everybody wears a yellow button that says, ‘We're being sensitive this month.'"

Hospital employees helped identify projects that would improve the experience of Chinese patients. Teams of employees chose the five that they thought would make the greatest contribution. One was staff training in cultural sensitivity as it relates to patient care.

"Many of the staff do have a good understanding of cultural differences, but our goal was to really develop a book of wisdom that could be disseminated to all of the staff to improve the consistency of their responsiveness to cultural difference," says Harriet Levine, president of Stuart Levine & Associates LLC, the consulting firm that worked with the hospital on the project.

Another area that staff chose to focus on: employee satisfaction. It sounds funny, at first—as if the staff put itself first. But, Levine says, new initiatives simply won't work if you don't have satisfied employees who will stand behind them.

Management must understand that to get your employees on board, your staff and the union need to be recognized, appreciated, and valued, Levine says. "And when that all works together, you can get great customer service."

Gienna Shaw is an editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at
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