Health IT

Q & A: How hospitals can really listen and why social media is overrated (for now)

“The old approach was ‘I want to tell you all about me as a hospital. I want to tell you I am everything you need,’ ” said Robin Segbers, vice president for Point to Point Healthcare. But in an era of job cuts, high health-care costs and a glut of information, candor — no matter what the answer — is the best option, she said.

BEACHWOOD, Ohio — Sometimes, the best decision for a hospital system is to tell patients that it’s not the best place to heal them – but it will be the best place to help them. And even in this Internet age, sometimes the best communication is on paper or face-to-face.

Those are the realities in modern health care, said Robin Segbers, vice president for Point to Point Healthcare, a consulting and marketing firm in Beachwood, Ohio. “The old approach was ‘I want to tell you all about me as a hospital. I want to tell you I am everything you need,’ ” Segbers said.

But in an era of job cuts, high health-care costs and a glut of information, candor — no matter what the answer — is the best option, Segbers said. Below are excerpts from an interview in which Segbers discusses new media’s place in health care, the approach hospitals must take with patients, and which hospital executives are already heading in the right direction.

Q. So how do hospitals see quality, and how do patients see quality?
A. I’m going to be a little bit crass, but I think most hospitals market themselves as high-tech and high-touch. There’s not much differentiating hospital marketing. And when it comes to listening to consumers and what they need, there is a lot of one-way communication.

I think trust is eroding in the hospital system pretty quickly.

Patients talk about the experience. Most consumers, if asked to evaluate quality, base it on compassion and caring and communication. I think a hospital can go out of [its] way and say, without being boastful: “We may not always be the best, but we’re here to help you make the best decision.” I think the health-care industry needs to have leaders that take that route.

Q. How should hospitals listen?
A. Listening creates an opportunity. I worked with a health system in orthopedics that had two options for arthritis: drugs and surgery. Consumers navigated pain and mobility issues on their own.

Pain management became part of the service line. In between (drugs and surgery), there [are] physical therapy, acupuncture and other options. It broadened their funnel to meet the needs of the consumer audience.

For every major service line there are unmet needs — from cardiac rehabilitation to diabetes — so you actually help people manage their [lives] with a disease, and find different entry points where you can intervene and create market share and loyalty.

Q. What’s the best way to reach out to patients today?
A. Consumers’ health-care needs increase as they age. So I don’t think consumers en masse, particularly those that use a lot of health-care services, use Twitter and Facebook. But they do use Google and WebMD — particularly when it comes to product decisions and health decisions. So search-engine optimization and search marketing are important.

Word-of-mouth is still the most common way for consumers to learn about  hospitals. I still think seniors read a lot more. I think mailings still work.

Q. Then what does a modern health-care CEO look like?
A. I think some of the leaders who will emerge will become high profile through disclosure, openness and willingness to talk. Paul Levy of Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center in Boston may be one of those CEOs who emerges. There is an openness about him.

Melinda Estes is another. Fletcher Allen Health Care in Vermont was one of the first to disclose hospital costs on its Web site.

Q. Isn’t part of the problem that government is seen leading the charge for transparency, while health care is largely the obstructionist?
A. I would agree with that. Those taking a leadership role — instead of looking like they’re mandated — they’re doing it internally and externally. The leadership coming from industry has to do more than look like they’re forced go along … They have to help consumers understand quality.

Q. Can hospitals use the same approaches to better engage their workforces?
A. I think it’s a huge problem. But I think it’s an opportunity. Paul Levy is asking employees their ideas on how to lower Beth Israel’s $20 million deficit. He got lots of employees posting with ideas. There were volunteers to lose salary increases or cut benefits to save jobs.

It’s the open disclosure that differentiates leaders in this economy. Paul Levy turned fear into volunteers to save jobs.