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Advertising and Health Care

Lynn Lucas-Fehm, M.D.

By Lynn Lucas- Fehm, MD, JD

Health systems across the nation are competing for patients, attempting to position themselves as the destination point for quality medical care. In this endeavor, it has become common place for hospitals, medical groups and even individual doctors to “brand” their institutions and practices with logos and slogans displayed on everything from billboards and bus signage to television ads in prime time.  The goal is to produce a compelling tagline and image that symbolizes the services or philosophy of their health care system.

One question to consider is for all of the money spent on cutting edge web designs, advertising firms and air time, does branding really impact a patient’s selection of a health care provider.  Second and perhaps more important is should it play an integral role in a patient’s decision making process?

The answer to the first question has to be yes since the only way not to be exposed and at least partially influenced by the endless barrage of ads on TV and in print would be to live in a cave.

However, there is no definitive answer to the second question particularly when what doctors perceive as value is often quite different from what the public wants and what health systems advertise.

Doctors are likely to think of value in terms of clinical quality (skill level, training, and peer reputation) in affiliation with a health system that provides state of the art equipment and technology. But the public (the buyer) often values service (access, amenities, ease of scheduling).  Since effective branding is targeted at the buyer what we as physicians want to promote may not be what needs to be sold from a marketing/business point of view by the health systems.

There has been considerable research on this topic. One article written by Dana Goldman (RAND Chair in Health Economics and Adjunct Professor of Health Services Radiology at UCLA) and John Romley (Associate Economist at RAND) emphasizes the importance of “amenities” to patients.  The article entitled “What Can We Learn About Hospitals from the Revealed Preferences of Patients?” noted that in choosing their hospital, patients are concerned with both quality of care and amenities such as comfortable rooms. The authors also went on to stress the need for assessment of the value of amenities in relation to other hospital benefits if a hospital wishes to successfully compete.

 

Given the results of this research it is not a surprise that the health care branding field has grown significantly in the past decade along with programs to assure patient/customer satisfaction.  In fact, even Disney has gotten involved.

 

In the July 22, 2011 issue of Physicians News Digest the article Hospitals Look for Disney Magic to Make Customers Happy reported on Disney’s expansion into the health consulting field.   Fred Lee, a former Disney health consultant and hospital administrator (author of the 2005 book “If Disney Ran Your Hospital”), noted that Disney was “shrewdly capitalizing on the fear and concerns of hospital executives who may lose millions of dollars if their patient satisfaction scores are not at the top of the pack.”

There is little doubt that many patients make choices at least in part on the basis of advertising and some of the marketing might be targeted more at amenities than medical treatment.  However, if we are to care for our patients to the best of our ability, consideration must be made to address all aspects of patient care and the patient’s preferences play a part.  The difficult task is to make sure advertising is not taken to an extreme where the doctor patient relationship and sound medical judgment get lost in a media campaign.  As usual, it comes down to each one of us.  I still speak with many patients who tell me that what brings them back year after year to the same hospital and doctor is the compassion, trust and genuine caring that they experience.  That means a lot more than any logo or slogan.

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Lynn Lucas- Fehm, MD, JD, is the 150th President of the Philadelphia County Medical Society (www.philamedsoc.org).

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