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Amidst Upheaval, Marketers Must Retain Focus on the Patient in 2010

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, January 6, 2010

In 2009, healthcare organizations, led by marketers, made great strides in a number of areas. They focused their attention on the patient experience, understanding that improvements there would have myriad benefits beyond happier patients. Many marketers embraced social media and other forms of new media in 2009, finding new and inventive ways to reach out to their patients and communities. And in 2009, marketers found ways to do more with less in the midst of economic upheaval. They didn't have much choice on the latter point: How frequently did you hear the phrase "marketing budgets are the first to be cut" in 2009?

In 2010, the more things change, the more they'll stay the same. Marketing budgets won't magically double. Social media will still be a tough sell to leaders who don't get it or to marketers who don't understand its implications and opportunities. Improving the patient experience will continue to be a priority but won't get any easier to accomplish—it is transformative work that takes time, resolve, and financial investment. One week in, 2010 already promises to be a year of upheaval and change, as patients become more engaged and empowered, as we inch closer to a healthcare reform bill, as marketers struggle to understand and harness the power of emerging technologies and learn new ways to communicate, and as the shortage of healthcare workers shifts from "looming" to "right now."

Some thoughts on the challenging year that lies ahead for healthcare marketing leaders:

Patient experience and empowerment
Healthcare leaders have always understood that patient care is not just a top priority but the top priority. Even so, over the past several years we've seen a sea change in how patients interact with the healthcare system. They're demanding more transparency (even if that simply means they want to see their caregivers wash their hands upon entering the exam room). They're becoming more informed and engaged in their health (to the consternation of some who would prefer patients remain passive and stop looking up their symptoms on WebMd). They want their physicians to do a better job of communicating with them and they want them to do so in new ways (in this age, it is astounding that more physicians don't e-mail their patients and that so many organizations still don't allow patients to book appointments online).

Add to that the fact that the healthcare industry as a whole cannot deny the link between patient satisfaction and quality care and the link between patient experience and reputation and, by extension, the bottom line. In the past year, I've interviewed leaders at a number of organizations who understand that these are inextricably linked and have adjusted their mission statements and priorities to put the patient experience at the top of their diamonds or pyramids—right alongside quality care.

If I could only make one prediction this year, it would be that 2010 will be the year of the patient in a meaningful way and in every aspect: that the waves of consumerism, patient empowerment, patient experience, transparency, patient-centered care will truly crest.

Healthcare reform
But if there was ever a tough year to make predictions about healthcare, 2010 would be that year, with healthcare reform promising to change just about every aspect of the industry, including market strategy.

In a conversation yesterday, someone noted that hospitals could soon be so full of patients and so short on resources that the "soft" sciences of healthcare could drop in importance, as healthcare organizations focus on adapting to the new landscape. Patient experience—an area of intense focus and interest in 2009—might not seem so important anymore. Why bother to improve your reputation, differentiate your organization from the competition, and promote your organization as the best place to work and receive care if those efforts have no impact on volume and the bottom line?

I'm not buying it and, thankfully, neither are leaders at healthcare organizations that have made transforming the patient experience their mission.

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