Conversations about the good

30 Jul

Marketing is still an ever-so-slightly dirty word in health care. To some, marketing smacks of sleight of hand, subtle deception and self-interest.

When I began my career in the marketing and PR department of an acute-care hospital, there were still practitioners in the field – and my organization – who felt any advertising or marketing for health-care services was unseemly. Marketing departments dedicated to communicating services to consumers came late to health care compared with almost every other industry: They were almost non-existent until the mid-1980s.

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Much of this reluctance against marketing and its most-visible tactic, advertising, is historical. For decades, the American Medical Association prohibited its members from advertising, originally due to concerns about medical quackery. Since physicians normally play a significant role in guiding and leading hospitals, this marketing stigma bled over there as well. In 1979, the Federal Trade Commission ordered the AMA to rescind its rules banning advertising due to concerns about potential price-fixing, opening the door to the eventual creation over the next decade of hospital marketing, public relations and communications departments staffed with dedicated practitioners.

Some of that stigma remains in health care: Marketing is “bad.” Marketing is not in the patient’s best interest. Marketing is selling. However, I would argue that in acute health care, especially the not-for-profit realm, marketing serves a greater good, informing consumers about services to save and improve their lives.

Much of hospital and health system marketing – my preferred term is marketing communications – is focused on wellness, education and helping patients find essential services and resources. Marketing health care is different than marketing just about any other service.  No one wakes up in the morning and decides to have a cardiac cath. Certainly, letting a potential Type 2 diabetic know about a weight-loss program is “good.” Reminding mothers-to-be about the importance of prenatal care is “good.” A lot of what is labeled marketing in health care is really about communication and education: What are the signs of stroke? What types of cancer treatment options are available in my region? Where can I find a doctor?

Health information exchange will only broaden and deepen these communication opportunities. As health systems begin to use greater amounts of data to reach greater efficiency and promote evidence-based medicine, someone will need to communicate those changes to the people affected, the patients and community. Will it be marketers?

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