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A Different View of Healthcare Marketing

By HealthLeaders Media Staff  
   July 16, 2008

I hear it all the time from healthcare marketers and experts alike: hospitals and health systems should look to other industries for marketing and advertising ideas. After all, this tactic has worked in other areas of healthcare. Patient safety and quality have both been improved thanks to best practices borrowed from outside the healthcare field, for example. But will that innovation ever find its way into the marketing department? Or are healthcare marketers too entrenched in the "this-is-the-way-we've-always-done-it mentality"?

Here's the problem. The way it's always been done is not very well.

Really, how long will hospitals run ads with pictures of a team of doctors in white coats with their arms crossed or a nurse at a patient's bedside offering a comforting touch and a friendly smile or pictures of medical devices and buildings?

OK, so it's no secret that healthcare is a little behind the curve when it comes to marketing. And that's why some savvy healthcare marketers are looking beyond their own departments and hallways for inspiration, advice, and a new way to do things.

And there are lots of things that healthcare marketers can learn from other industries, especially in areas in which healthcare marketing is—let's face it—weak. From product development to how best to use new media to creating a brand that engages consumers to measuring return on investment (the latter being the weakest of all weak spots, for sure), why not turn to others for a little help?

So, who should you turn to?

In this month's issue of HealthLeaders magazine, I wrote about some of the lessons healthcare marketers can find in the business models of companies in other industries, such as pharmaceutical, finance, travel, and hospitality.

The people I interviewed for this article said you have to go beyond the obvious. Yes, hotels have valet parking and yummy room service choices. But there's more to it than that.

"Our patients don't understand why they can stay at the Marriott and have an accurate bill under their door the morning they leave the hotel, yet the hospital sends an inaccurate bill months after they are discharged," Lynne Cunningham, principal of Cunningham Associates, a healthcare consulting firm in Sacramento, CA, told me. "Patients don't understand why we have asked for the same information upon registration—every time—even if they are being seen on a regular basis."

So, what else can you do to learn from other industries? A few suggestions:

  • Get on mailing lists. Every time you order from a catalogue or drop your business card in a fishbowl at a conference, you'll increase the number of direct mail pieces that land on your desktop. More clutter, yes. But also more inspiration from a variety of industries upon which to draw. Don't forget that even industries that have nothing to do with healthcare are, in a way, your competitor—those direct mail pieces are competing for the time and attention of your audience.
  • Sign up for e-newsletters. Want to figure out what kind of online ads work? Well then, you have to look at a bunch of online ads. Sign up for marketing and advertising e-newsletters, of course. But if you have other hobbies—such as cooking, photography, personal finance, or the latest best-sellers—believe me, there is an e-newsletter (or five) for you. Even if you're not interested in the content, you can always open the e-mail and take a peek at what ads are inside.
  • Build your collection. Invite your colleagues from across the hospital to join your new recycling program—by dropping all the direct mail they get into your mailbox. Your physicians are getting direct mail from pharma, medical device companies, sporting goods companies, travel companies, credit card companies and a host of others. Nurses and staffers, too. If you want to know how to reach your internal audience, study marketing that targets them.
  • Step outside for a minute. Check out that crafts fair under way down the street from your hospital or pop by that art gallery opening after work. Breathe in the atmosphere, spy on the organizers to see how they're greeting and interacting with attendees, see what kind of food they're serving, and look for the posters and postcards they used to promote the current event as well as upcoming ones. You might get some ideas to liven up your next health screening or make your next employee appreciation event a little more fun.

You have to break out of the marketplace clutter. You must differentiate your organization from the rest. The best way to look different than everybody else might just be to look in a different direction from everybody else.

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