Why hospital names are like iPhone apps, Coca-Cola

Visitors to the hospital on the north end of Aurora, Ill., the state's second-largest city, are greeted by a big green-and-blue sign welcoming them to Amita Health Mercy Medical Center.

Amita Health hasn't existed for more than a year and a half.

If you're at the intersection long enough, however, every few seconds the adjacent electronic sign flashes the 95-bed hospital's official name, Ascension Mercy.

But according to the local newspaper, community members just refer to it as "Mercy" anyway. It's the same way people call iPhone applications "apps" and Coca-Cola "Coke."

This situation begs the question: In an era of never-ending mergers and acquisitions, does it really matter what your local hospital is called anymore?

It also shows the challenges chief marketing officers face in helping patients keep up with the names of their local healthcare institutions.

"Patients have to have a good reason to change their behavior. Just like health systems have to have a good reason to change their name," Leonard Berry, PhD, distinguished professor of marketing at College Station-based Texas A&M University, told Becker's.

He said those include repairing a negative reputation or merging with a more admired and better-known health system.

"Barring these issues, stick with the name you have, the name people are familiar with, the name people are going to use anyway — and save the money," Dr. Berry said.

He noted that residents of his community continued to call the local hospital "St. Joseph's" even after Omaha, Neb.-based CHI Health (now part of Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health) bought it and put its name on all the signage.

4 names in a decade

Aurora residents might be feeling a bit of branding whiplash at this point. Their hospital has had four different names in just over a decade.

It had been called Provena Mercy Medical Center for 16 years — a relative eternity in the hospital business — until 2013, when it was renamed Presence Mercy Medical Center. Presence Health had been created through the merger of Provena Health and Resurrection Health Care, two Chicago-area Catholic health systems.

In 2018, St. Louis-based Ascension acquired Presence Health as part of Amita Health, its joint venture with Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based AdventHealth. The hospital became Amita Health Mercy Medical Center until April 2022, when that health system folded and the facility — officially at least — took on the Ascension name.

"Why it was rebranded Amita Health is always a question — it is foolish to try to create a new brand and rebrand the hospital," said Thomas Beeman, PhD, professor of the practice of healthcare administration at Philadelphia-based Saint Joseph's University and a former hospital CEO. "In the case of Ascension — which is a national brand and well-respected — cobranding Mercy is probably a good idea. It means Mercy has new support from a respected brand." 

An Ascension spokesperson told Becker's no one from the health system was available to comment for this story.

In simpler (marketing) times, the Sisters of Mercy founded St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in 1911, providing medical services in a converted former apartment building in Aurora, a then-growing industrial city about 40 miles west of Chicago. The nuns named the facility after their sisterhood and the man who raised Jesus. Easy enough.

The sisters later opened a psychiatric institution and built a new hospital on the site, where the complex still resides today. After the two facilities merged, in 1971 it became Mercy Center for Health Care Services. It kept that name for 26 years.

Ascension Mercy may not have replaced its signs yet for financial reasons, experts say. Changing hands so many times in rapid succession indicates it might not be in the best economic shape anyway.

"I don't know this particular hospital system, but if I was the marketing director I would be looking for other ways to invest my money than adding the Ascension name to all my signage," Dr. Berry said.

Not just hospitals

Hospital patients aren't the only ones who abbreviate the names of famous institutions, said Roberta Clarke, PhD, associate professor emeritus of health sector management at Boston University.

"We use veggies for vegetables all the time. The concept of an app on your phone — that's short for application, but nobody says application. Everybody says Coke for Coca-Cola, Harley for Harley-Davidson," she said. "Why would you want to spill out five words when you can do it in one?"

In healthcare, people often just shorten the names anyway, she noted: "MGH" for Massachusetts General Hospital, "the Brigham" for Brigham and Women's Hospital, "Presby" for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, "CHOP" for Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Dr. Clarke said name changes aren't just for the public. They can indicate culture change to employees. They can signal to donors an entrance into — or exit from — a religious institution. They can be a show of pride from leaders of big health systems that just got bigger.

"When people think about a hospital, they think of the location and the building. Services are intangible, but the building is tangible — and people tend to think more in terms of tangibles," she said. "So as long as that place keeps the name Mercy, they maybe ought not to invest a huge amount in the name change because people still know where it is. As long as they keep calling it Mercy, there isn't such a need for investment."

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