MedCity Influencers, Hospitals

Challenging the ‘Growth By Any Means’ Approach in Hospital Marketing

When it comes to organizational growth, the concept of “growth by any means” is hurting the hospital’s bottom line and pushing healthcare to a tipping point – adding expense to American healthcare without adding value.

Today, in healthcare, several things are true. First, the U.S. continues to outspend other countries and experience poor health outcomes. This is demonstrated by a report from The Commonwealth Fund which found the U.S. health system has the highest death rates for treatable conditions, the highest suicide rate, and the highest maternal mortality rates out of 38 “high-income” countries. Second, physicians are burnt out and leaving the field in droves, causing labor shortages nationwide. Third, more than half of hospitals are still operating in the red as they struggle to recuperate from pandemic losses amid high inflation and anemic non-operating income.

Now that we’ve addressed the “healthcare is complicated” storyline, it’s time we talk about what we can do to address it.

When it comes to organizational growth, the concept of “growth by any means” is hurting the hospital’s bottom line and pushing healthcare to a tipping point – adding expense to American healthcare without adding value. Here’s what I mean.

Despite having high-name recognition locally, we often see hospitals and health systems over-indexing on branding, which is meant to drive awareness and build brand loyalty, rather than patient acquisition and retention strategies which can help make the hospital money. While branding is, and will continue to be, an essential ingredient for healthcare marketers, effective rebranding efforts cannot be pursued independently of the experience that is delivered every day. That is, how they are finding care, receiving care and engaging with your organization in person and online. That is the true definition of brand.

For example, healthcare organizations measure everything, and many contracts with commercial and Medicare Advantage payors require complex reporting scorecards that are designed to measure everything from the quality and effectiveness of care to the access of care and experience while using services. This is the tip of the marketing arrow and provides the data healthcare marketers need to move the needle on hospital bottom lines. Consumers may not always understand quality scores or rankings, but over time these factors create high quality brands – the institutions we recognize as the best took years to earn those reputations, and intense, focused marketing efforts to cement those reputations in our minds.

Another unique aspect of hospital marketing is that many organizations still struggle to pinpoint their most lucrative patient segments, often resorting to broad categorizations like “commercial.” This overlooks the significance of patient acquisition and retention strategies, which are crucial for sustainable growth. In fact, a common misconception we see is that more patients equals better financial performance, leading to a “quantity over quality” mindset. However, this approach can result in significant financial losses as many of these patients will not generate revenue for the healthcare organization. This is particularly true for organizations struggling to staff beds – the payor mix of the patients who occupy those beds is absolutely critical.

This is about more than just revenue. It’s about proposing a balanced approach of both brand building and patient acquisition strategies to yield better results. Done effectively with the right technology and insights, marketing’s influence can extend well beyond brand building and patient acquisition and have a trickle down effect on labor shortages, quality of care, hospital spending and healthcare access. Marketing can drive growth and sustainable performance to address the supply and demand sides of the equation – patient AND workforce acquisition and retention.

There are a few examples of healthcare leaders that have demonstrated the synergy between brand building, acquisition, and retention, including Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic. These organizations leverage a combination of traditional and digital marketing tools to create a global brand that attracts patients from all over the world. For example, Mayo Clinic has a vast library of physician-approved blog content on patient health conditions, which helps position the brand as a trusted resource globally. Cleveland Clinic has more than 100 digital campaigns for specific diseases and conditions targeting geographies where patients are likely to need care and want to travel to Cleveland Clinic.

Many hospital marketeers will read this and think, “Fine, but we aren’t the Cleveland Clinic. We don’t have the brand that Mayo has.” The principles still hold true, and you can pursue your local and tailored version of their strategies that work for your organization in your community. What you shouldn’t do is disregard the idea of change on its face.

The key is creating a better balance  between building a recognizable brand and targeting specific patient demographics to make all of your investments work harder. However, yet another unique aspect of healthcare marketing is that most of the information that could be used to deliver more personalized care and better engage the patient lives in information silos, making it difficult to deliver an effective marketing strategy that contributes to the hospitals bottom line.

In fact, we believe that effective marketing includes a robust measurement technology and an understanding of payer contracts to optimize marketing approaches. It requires aligning marketing with managed care strategies to drive better revenue within existing patient populations whose care the hospital or health system is already responsible for managing under a managed care contract. The greatest value is bringing together managed care, marketing and technology in a way that creates value none of them can create on their own.

By approaching hospital marketing in this way, we create a flywheel effect where sustained performance improvements are achieved without solely relying on increased patient volume or dependent on costly rebrands, which are often not the root of the problem. Instead, focusing on acquiring and retaining the right patients leads to enhanced affordability, making a hospital organization a more attractive choice for payers, employers, and patients.

While the complexities of healthcare are undeniable, the focus should remain on actionable strategies rather than dwelling on the intricacies of the field. Often the most successful and impactful marketing strategies are simple and clear – even in incredibly complex industries or with complex products and services.  Ultimately, the healthcare industry’s forward momentum relies on creating a balanced ecosystem of solutions.

Photo: Hollygraphic, Getty Images 

Brandon Edwards, CEO and Cofounder of Unlock Health, is a seasoned health care marketing communication strategist with expertise across the marketing spectrum and deep experience in crisis and reputation management. He has more than 25 years working in corporate and agency, with deep experience navigating the complex business relationships in health services. Brandon is also a frequent speaker at health care industry events and leader of groundbreaking practice focused on payor/provider relations and the relationships between health plans and hospitals, health systems, specialty providers, physician organizations, and health technology companies.

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