A 'highly emotional' job: How UCSF Health's marketing chief aims to increase access to care

UCSF Health marketing leader Sarah Sanders wants to personalize marketing to its patients but not in a way that is "impersonal" or "weird," she told Becker's.

Since Ms. Sanders became chief marketing and brand experience officer of the San Francisco-based academic health system in October 2021, she has been focused on brand strategy and identifying the organization's unique ethos and long-term aspirations — and how her department can help reach them.

She previously led marketing for Jacksonville, Fla.-based Nemours, with prior stops at Philadelphia-based Penn Medicine, Baltimore-based University of Maryland Medical Center and University of Rochester (N.Y.) Medical Center. When she started in the business 25 years ago, the "job was done when we got the print ad to the newspaper," she said. That obviously has changed.

Now the technology is much more sophisticated and the industry concentrates more on growth, she said. Her system is also supremely focused on health equity.

"There's an opportunity to really think about healthcare marketing in a broader way, to relieve the burden of providers and relieve the burden to our consumers and really understand what individual audiences need," she said.

"When people go into healthcare marketing, they're driven differently. It's very mission-driven. This is a complex industry. It's a highly emotional one. It's exciting for me to see how we can add value and make life a little easier for both our consumers and our providers."

A big challenge is balancing personalization and privacy, especially with the controversies surrounding pixel tracking technology in healthcare. "I would hate to go on Amazon and they don't anticipate what I need," Ms. Sanders said. "But it's something I've opted into. And so the idea of having preference centers and personalization and capturing what people really want is something that we're building right now.

"Retargeting feels OK around shoes or something like that. It feels so impersonal or weird in the healthcare space. And so we're trying to find ways to understand consumers, target consumers, but give them options to participate in the journey."

She added that UCSF Health is aiming to personalize marketing to patients "using data that's not based on their experience within our health system."

She said she still spends a lot of time explaining the necessity of her department.

"Even sometimes when you talk to doctors, they're like, 'Do we need any marketing?'" she said. "To be honest, it's not an unreasonable question right now with some of the access challenges that our organization has."

So she spells out how marketing can assist in overcoming those obstacles. For instance, it might direct patients to departments that have appointment openings in the hopes of increasing access in areas that don't.

She also takes cues from other systems. "There are leaders in the industry that have really led the way in national marketing campaigns, like the Mayos and the Mass Generals and Cleveland Clinics," she said. "And so that level of investment and a 'destination strategy' has increased the visibility of marketing in healthcare, something that we didn't see 10 years ago."

So she said she spends only about 40 percent of her time educating people about marketing, compared to about half in the past.

With the level of personalization in other industries like online retail and banking, consumer expectations have changed, Ms. Sanders noted. But healthcare has more stringent privacy rules. And the technology, data and skill sets to deliver that level of consumerism aren't cheap.

"To do that in a non-for-profit industry, and show the value in that, is a fine line. It's a balancing act," she said.

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