What's Your Brand?

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Magazine , November 14, 2008
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"We feel strongly that patient experience for us will be a competitive differentiator," she says.

That kind of differentiation is necessary in today's competitive healthcare environment, says Roger Sametz, president of Sametz Blackstone Associates, a marketing consultancy in Boston. A patient can go to any hospital to treat a broken leg, he says. To go beyond a one-time transaction and become a person's provider of choice for a lifetime, hospitals must create an emotional connection to the patient-consumer. "The process, how it feels being there … that's something that can be a competitive advantage or a competitive disadvantage," he says. "Healthcare organizations have to live their brand or it won't be promulgated and it won't be credible. You can define your brand in your boardroom, but it doesn't exist until people who are important internalize it."

Chief among those who must internalize your brand: your internal audience. "Branding for healthcare institutions really involves engaging all of the staff in the effort," Sametz says.

Your brand walks and talks
In a testimonial-style ad for a Boston-area hospital, a man talks about the care his father received there. He does not once mention clinical treatment. He says nothing about technology. Instead, he talks about his experience at the hospital. The three best things about the hospital, he says: the people, the people, and the people.

It's a fitting metaphor for how a healthcare brand is created—and how the brand message is spread. People are the biggest influencers of your brand, and your message is spread from employees to patients and from patients to the community at large. "The people that you hire are your brand. Your brand is walking around on two legs," Berry says.

At Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, CA, the drive to improve patient satisfaction is a team effort—but getting everyone on board isn't always easy. When satisfaction scores weren't as good as they should be, the customer service and marketing teams started making the case to leadership that they needed to do some work, says Connie Matthews, director of marketing and communications. "Sometimes you'd get the rolling eyes," she admits. "But our culture here is that we want to be the best … Average isn't good enough."

Programs at Cleveland Clinic include a number of patient and family advisory councils at regional hospitals and institutes. "The patient voice guides us at all steps," Duffy says. Within each division and at each hospital, there is an "institute experience officer," a collaboration between a doctor and a nurse, partnered as equals, to drive patient and employee satisfaction.

Huntington has also implemented a number of internal programs and initiatives to keep patient satisfaction scores up. Employee reviews are tied to patient satisfaction, for example. And the hospital offers education programs for employees, including classes on communication and conflict resolution for leadership, managers, and directors.

Hiring employees is another focus area, Matthews says. "We really stress customer service in our organization," she says. And finding an employee who fits the culture is more important than just finding one to fill a slot.

This is a theme at many service-oriented healthcare organizations. "At Mayo Clinic, it is probably easier to find the right people than it is for some organizations because it is a brand name," Seltman says. But all organizations can be careful about hiring, he adds. "The pain of dealing with a poor hire is so great that any intelligent person wants to avoid that mistake if at all possible," he says. Waiting for the right person isn't easy—especially if you or those who report to you have to take up the slack for any length of time. But it's still better to wait and make sure you have the proper fit. When you do hire the right people, your overall employee satisfaction shoots up. And that, in turn, makes it easier to find new hires. The same holds true when it comes to firing poor employees.

"An organization needs to make very clear expectations of their employees, saying that bad behavior is unacceptable, and if they want to behave in that way, they'll have to do it at another organization," Seltman says. "You cannot have a cancer growing in the work force."

Employees and physicians must be valued, respected, recognized, and rewarded for providing the best service they possibly can, Duffy says. The other side of that is that organizations must have zero tolerance for behaviors that don't demonstrate their core values.

"We have worked with the chief of staff to create a policy that makes it clear we won't tolerate that kind of behavior—and we won't hire anyone that doesn't exhibit an understanding of that," she says.

"Everybody you hire who interacts with patients and families impacts the patient experience, which in turn impacts the brand. And so the reality of a service business is that what you sell is a performance. And that performance, more or less, comes from a human performer," Berry says. "And so if you're interested in quality of any kind, then you need to take great care in deciding which performer to put in front of your customer."

Employees, too
Employee satisfaction has an impact on the brand, as well. Huntington has a number of programs to improve employee satisfaction, such as a concierge service that performs errands and tasks for employees and rewards for departments that meet patient satisfaction goals. Matthews says these programs have had a direct impact on patient satisfaction scores.

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