Marketing for Healthcare is a Delicate Operation

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Marketing Healthcare in today’s economy

By Jeff Marcoux, Board Member, Internet Marketing Association and CMO Lead, Microsoft
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Most marketers face a familiar challenge: how to get and keep the attention of consumers who have at least a theoretical interest in what the company is selling. But what if your product is the last thing most people want to think about, and begrudge every dollar they have to spend on it?

Welcome to the complicated world of healthcare marketing, a role that most organizations are reluctant to admit is necessary in an industry where most are hesitant to publicly discuss they have business interests beyond providing care.

Out of the shadows. Despite its lower profile, marketing in healthcare is assuming greater importance as change sweeps across the landscape of American medicine. Legislative reforms and regulations like the ACA and HIPAA have fundamentally changed the economics of the industry, driving waves of consolidation and imposing new requirements around security, productivity and cost-efficiency. Patients now bear a greater responsibility for the costs of their care and are applying greater scrutiny to their providers. And social media and ratings platforms are bringing new, often unwelcome, transparency to a field where professional authority previously reigned supreme.

Healthcare providers are locked in a fierce competition for patients and payers. Much of that will be resolved by how quickly players can adapt to operational challenges, cut costs and take advantage of new innovations specific to healthcare delivery and wellness. But some will depend on the experience and perception of patients and the reputation that providers enjoy relative to others in the market. Like it or not, those are areas in which marketing can be decisive.

Expectations are rising.  “As people become more aware of their choices and more responsible for payments in the healthcare system, they are demanding greater transparency on pricing and services from healthcare providers,” says Bill Crounse, MD, Senior Director, Worldwide Health Industry at Microsoft.

Because of the complexities of diagnosis, dependencies that can’t be foreseen at the time of admission, opaque “facility fees” charged by some institutions, and the coding requirements of payers, many providers are not set up to answer those questions in a straightforward way, leading to frustrating encounters between patients and healthcare institutions.

This situation makes it difficult for marketers as well. A key pillar of marketing is the promise of value for money. But beyond a few cut-and-dried fixed price procedures, providers can only promote capabilities, amenities, reputation and outcomes, without reference to the costs associated with those benefits. In a world where insurance picked up the tab for nearly everything, that was enough. Now that patients bear increasing costs and are responsible for more choices, it may no longer be.

Providers don’t control the information flow. Another issue for healthcare providers is the rise of third-party rating platforms like Yelp and Angie’s List that allow patients to publicly evaluate, compare and discuss the medical services they receive. These channels amplify the voices that used to be limited to word-of-mouth referrals, putting even more pressure on providers to deliver excellent patient experiences as well as outcomes – all while cutting costs to the bone.

“Some institutions are getting better at leveraging social channels, but many hospital and healthcare organizations are still behind the times,” says Crounse. He notes that efforts by doctors and facilities to force patients to sign nondisclosure agreements prohibiting them from commenting or rating their treatment on these platforms are bound to backfire.

Healthcare marketing and social engagement professionals must also content with the asymmetries of the information environment. Patients can say whatever they want on social media, but healthcare providers operate under strict regulations around data use and disclosure.

Healthcare-Marketing-by-the-Numbers_InfographicEngage best by engaging least. Many healthcare institutions are investing in “patient engagement” as a way to address the traditional marketing concerns of awareness and loyalty. By keeping in constant touch with patients, institutions can not only promote wellness and a better-informed public, but also build trust in their brands.

The problem with this approach, says Crounse, is that most people would prefer as little contact with their healthcare providers as possible. “Healthcare is something most people view as a kind of ‘grudge buy’—necessary but definitely not satisfying.” Crounse believes the best way to engage patients is to help them understand the things they can do to avoid any more “engagements” with doctors and hospitals than are absolutely necessary.

“Create financial incentives to help people stay healthy,” advises Crounse. “Develop technologies that ease the pain of engaging and interacting with the health system when one must do so, and help consumers avoid as many unnecessary medical visits and costs as possible.”

Invest in the right technologies. Finally, healthcare marketers can benefit from strategic investments in technologies that help them better understand, measure and connect to the things patients care about. Crounse lists three tech priorities that can help:

  1. Analytics to understand your audience. You need powerful tools to measure and optimize what you are doing. In healthcare, these cannot and should not be used for data-based marketing campaigns in the traditional sense, but they can help correlate the effectiveness of programs with costs to substantiate stronger marketing claims.
  2. Unified communication/collaboration. Partnerships and ecosystems are more important than ever. Provide services to patients and partners that enable them to share information, connect with information, institutions and one another to develop a greater sense of community.
  3. Mobility and devices. More and more people rely on their mobile devices for just about everything these days. Healthcare providers must pay special attention to security, privacy and regulatory concerns when building apps to engage patients through this channel, but the payoff in convenience, accessibility and patient experience is worth it.

Marketing may be far from the highest priority in the healthcare industry, and healthcare marketers don’t enjoy the same visibility and prestige as their medical colleagues. However the new world of healthcare requires more attention to traditional marketing concerns. And in this case, an ounce of prevention – in the form of better investments in marketing technologies – could be worth a ton of cure down the road.[:]

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