December 2004 Bulletin

Health care marketing presents unique challenges

Creating awareness is key to attracting patients

Gene Lazuta and Jonathan Schaffer, MD, MBA

It’s a simple equation, but historically, physicians and health care organizations have ignored the marketing process. For years, professional and direct-to-consumer advertising was considered unacceptable for physicians, and those who actively sought opportunities to discuss medical advances with the media were also viewed with skepticism.

In 2004, of course, that attitude seems as outdated as simply considering a tee shirt as underwear without a message of some kind emblazoned across it. Today’s increasingly competitive health care market—and the growing consumerism of the “baby boomer” generation—has made health care marketing not only acceptable, but a requirement.

Effective marketing of products or services to consumers is one of the most important functions of any organization; if potential users don’t know a certain product or service exists, they can’t buy it or benefit from it.

Health care marketing

When it comes to marketing ourselves and our practices, however, most orthopaedic surgeons have some catching up to do. We just aren’t used to think in marketing terms. And to complicate matters, health care marketing comes with its own unique rules, restraints and conventions.

Marketing has great power to influence consumer behavior, and with that power comes responsibility. In no other arena is that responsibility more integral than in health care, where accuracy, honesty, dignity, taste and respect are of paramount concern. Health care marketers must consider numerous psychological and emotional elements, as well as the physical elements of a product or service, when creating a campaign. Physicians also must be careful not to overrepresent the benefits of our services, or understate the possible downsides, in a way that could induce claims if complications occur after a particular procedure.

In addition, traditional definitions of “users” and “buyers” of a product or service are not always clear. Typically, there are two completely different audiences to address, most often identified as (1) medical professionals and (2) patients. Included in these two categories, however, are a number of other, important sub-groups, such as payers, survivor groups, professional organizations, manufacturers and advocacy and lobbying groups.

Regulatory agencies can cause complications as well. Advertisements for pharmaceuticals and implants, for instance, must contain information that is acceptable to regulators. It’s only a matter of time before provider/physician marketing comes under scrutiny as well.

A quick marketing “game plan”

For those who want to start working on their marketing strategy now, your basic goals are relatively simple: To identify a population that wants or needs a particular product or service, and to influence that population’s perception so as to motivate their preference for you as a provider.

Here’s a quick game plan:

Creating a strategy

However modest or extensive your marketing campaign might become, its effectiveness will be determined by the underlying integrity of your strategy.

Let’s say that one of your “target markets” is the baby-boom generation. The “weekend warriors” of this generation are powerful consumers of lifestyle drugs and procedures—whether for degenerative arthritis or maintaining an active lifestyle that enables them to participate in many activities. They expect a lot of information and will research a medical condition so that they can make the best decision for their particular circumstances.

To reach these consumers, you must consider all of the different aspects of marketing and incorporate as many as possible into your practice. Any marketing efforts should inform consumers about the essential features and the specific benefits of your practice—such as convenience, quality and care options—so that patients can make rational decisions in the selection of a provider and the maintenance of a healthier lifestyle.

Experiential marketing

So how do you reach your desired demographic? Although the vast majority of healthcare is episodic, the old saying, “Experience is the best teacher,” still applies. Today, more marketers are getting consumers’ personal experiences to work for them through effective use of “experiential marketing.”

Experiential marketing focuses on the personal experience that a consumer can expect to have with a given product or service. This approach is especially helpful when marketing technical or difficult-to-understand products such as health care services and procedures.

Marketing campaigns that effectively capture or create a desirable experience in the minds of potential consumers, and enable them to relate to the product or service as part of that experience, will receive a positive response.

Following a weekend of extreme activity, for example, baby boomers in search of relief will relate well to the personal stories and experiences of other weekend warriors. Pharmaceutical companies are already having great success in capturing “consumer experience” with their drugs—portraying people who continue to live active, vital and healthy lifestyles through the use of their products.

Fortunately, the vehicles necessary to convey these positive experiences to potential patients are relatively easy to develop, and can be easily distributed to the public through clever use of the Internet and media relations. Here are two ways you can relate the positive experiences of your current and former patients to future patients:

Convenience, quality, service, choice, caring

The “consumer experiences” that you want these testimonials and case histories to convey include:

Convenience: Today’s consumers shop online, send e-mail and carry cell phones, laptops and personal digital assistants. They’ve come to expect immediate, customized service, even in health care.

Quality: Consumers want the best. Stress quality of care, best practices and positive outcomes.

Service: Show how your practice goes the extra mile for your patients.

Choice: Patients want more say in their own health care decisions. They research their conditions and possible treatments and bring their findings with them to discuss with their doctors. Emphasize the variety of choices and alternatives available to patients at your practice.

Caring: Patients consumers want to feel that you care about them, remember them, and recognize their distinct needs. Portray your practice in a caring light.

Finally, it’s important to note that for any marketing strategy to be effective in the contemporary health care environment, management, daily operations and marketing must function interdependently, interacting on a regular basis with a constant flow of information back and forth.

Gene Lazuta is the marketing manager of the e-Cleveland Clinic, The Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, Ohio.

Jonathan L. Schaffer, MD, MBA is the e-Cleveland Clinic’s managing director and a member of the Academic Business and Practice Management Committee.

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