Marketing Mortality Rates

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, September 3, 2008

Here's a tagline for your next ad: "Our hospital kills fewer patients than the other guys!" No wait—that doesn't sound quite right. What if you flip it around to accentuate the positive? You could try something along the lines of "More patients survive when they are treated at our hospital." But that's not exactly a compelling message, either.

On August 20, CMS released mortality rates for every hospital in the country based on patients who died within 30 days of being admitted from a heart attack, heart failure, or pneumonia. The "death rates" as some in the media are calling them, are available online at the Hospital Compare site.

And it's super easy to look up the information. Consumers type in their ZIP code, define their search parameters by distance in miles, check off up to three hospitals, and click a button to compare them.

The effort was well-publicized in the widely-read USA Today newspaper, which also listed the best- and worst-scoring hospitals in the U.S. Although the Hospital Compare site can be hard to navigate, the newspaper's special package makes it easy to find the information. And understanding the results is easy, too.

I've criticized CMS in the past for making their data inscrutable, but it looks like they're learning their lesson on that score—the results, which compare the selected hospitals to each other and to the national average, are presented in an easy-to-understand graph. The explanation of the data is also fairly straightforward, although it's written at roughly a tenth-grade reading level, which is a little on the high side.

Of the handful of hospitals that I looked at, none had a mortality rate above the national average. That's pretty good news for those hospitals, right? Something to celebrate?

Well, if you can figure out a way to do that without mentioning death, I'd sure like to hear about it.

CMS "discourages" hospitals from using information from the Hospital Compare site in marketing efforts. But that's not going to stop hospitals from doing so: Experts I've talked to say CMS is unlikely to enforce the unofficial rule and, even if they do call a hospital on it, the most they'll do is send a stern letter.

Effectively, there's nothing stopping hospitals with good mortality rates from putting the results in a print, radio, outdoor, or TV ad.

Well, nothing other than common sense, that is.

It's one thing to take risks in your marketing efforts, strive to make an impact, and cut through the clutter. I'm all for that. And I think hospitals should be open and transparent about their patient safety, patient satisfaction, and quality statistics. It's not a bad idea to put the information or at least a link to the Hospital Compare site on your own Web site. After all, the information is already out there.

But a billboard or a TV spot touting your low mortality rates? Call me a traditionalist, but that just doesn't seem right to me. I just can't think of any good way to talk about death in a hospital ad.

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