9 Considerations Hospitals Can't Overlook When Marketing Specialty Programs

In an increasingly competitive healthcare environment, marketing is becoming ever more important. Marketing for specialty programs, such as those in cardiology, oncology, neurology, radiology and orthopedics and spine, is particularly important because they require a great deal of investment by hospitals and can produce significant financial benefits for the facility and clinical benefits for the community. The following nine considerations can help hospitals gain patient volume and recognition for their specialty service lines.

1.  Collaboration. A hospital's marketing and service line departments should work closely together to combine efforts in reaching patients and physicians instead of dividing economic and personnel resources to make uncoordinated and potentially contradictory messages. "[Successful marketing] starts with developing a strong relationship with the marketing and clinical team," says Adam Higman, a manager at clinical and managerial healthcare consulting firm Soyring Consulting. "Understanding the audience comes from developing that relationship." A close relationship between marketing and service lines can ensure the hospital is sending the most up-to-date information about a particular specialty to the correct audience. For example, physicians know what new equipment or procedures they offer and what physicians constitute their referral base.  

"It starts from the top down," Mr. Higman says. "It needs to be clear from the COO, VP of operations, [etc.], that marketing needs to be involved in the [service line] strategy. Make sure it's tied into the organization's structure in a way that marketing has a dotted line to those major service lines."

2. Consistency. Simple, consistent branding from the color to the font is one of the most important and also one of the most oft-violated marketing guidelines, according to Marshall A. Maglothin, MHA, administrative director of the Heart and Vascular Institute at Marriottsville, Md.-based Bon Secours Health System. "Keep it simple and focused [so that] it properly reflects the brand and secures public recognition," Mr. Maglothin says. "You don't need to hit it with a jazzy new logo — [such as] 'We're the heart of it all' or 'We have your heart in mind' — just keep it simple and focused and consistent."

Ensuring consistency across all the materials the hospital sends out for the service line can be difficult and thus requires central control, another benefit of collaboration between the marketing and service line departments. "Service line leaders need to be responsible for marketing to make sure all materials are professional. I frequently run across in discharge packets things representing the service line that are ninth generation photocopies — barely readable — which does not reflect service professionalism. It is important that the service line leader have control over that image," Mr. Maglothin says.

Standardizing an image does not mean all messages have to be worded the same way, however. One of the keys to successful marketing of specialty programs is targeting patients directly through community outreach and other media as well as indirectly through referring physicians. Materials for physicians may have to be translated for patients if they contain medical jargon or complicated concepts.

3. Differentiation.
The main goal in marketing a hospital's specialty program is to differentiate it from other hospitals' programs. The increased competition in the marketplace is making this objective more and more difficult, according to  Daniel Weinbach, executive vice president of integrated marketing firm The Weinbach Group. "Ultimately you have to look at the client and what they do best," he says. For example, an academic medical center's access to clinical trials can be good differentiator, "especially when dealing with diseases like cancer, where experimental treatments are seen as an opportunity for greater success and a source of hope," Mr. Weinbach says. In contrast, a community hospital may be unique in its offering of care coordination and navigation.

4. Focus. Focusing on a specific aspect of a program, such as its research or care coordination, can make the program more memorable and relevant to patients and physicians. Instead of marketing for an orthopedic service in general, Mr. Higman suggests zeroing in on a center within that service, such as a total joint center, and from there concentrating on knees or hips. "Hospitals need to do the research," Mr. Higman says. "If you look at the demographics and population, you should be able to pick out procedures that are likely to grow, and pick them out based on not just demographics, but trends at your competitive facilities." For example, high obesity rates in an area may make patients in those regions more susceptible to heart diseases, making marketing for certain cardiac procedures more effective in that region.

5. Physician-centrism. Choosing an area of focus is not always easy, however. Certain strategies call for highlighting the individual physicians in a service line to appeal to patients and referring physicians, while others avoid physician-centric tactics in favor of a benefits philosophy.

"Always focus on service line physicians rather than services," Mr. Maglothin says. "[You may have] a new state-of-the-art service, possibly that no one else offers, but it will only be the next couple days before the competition gets it. Patients are much more interested in physicians." Mr. Maglothin suggests that marketing materials reflect the personal style of practices or specialists, such as by saying one physician "enjoys taking time in discussion with patients" or "this physician is very focused on expediting your diagnosis." He says he provides physicians' personal biography sheets and business cards in patient waiting rooms to appeal to patients who are seeking specific qualities in physicians.

Mr. Higman says hospitals should provide detailed information on specialists when targeting primary care physicians for referrals. "If they're considered major experts on some kind of specialty within that area, or if they're considered a thought leader, you need to share that with the referring physician. Include journal publications they've been part of and speaking that they've done on topics related to the specialty," he says.

6. Benefits-centrism. In contrast, Mr. Weinbach advocates for concentrating marketing on the benefits to the patient rather than who or what will be delivering those benefits. "Most hospitals believe that the process, including the physicians, is what consumers care about. However, focusing on a doctor's credentials doesn't show a prospective patient any tangible benefit. They want to be healthy, and that's all that matters," he says. At least for direct marketing to patients, focusing on the physician may be less likely to influence patient volume than an approach based on outcomes. "Very rarely is the patient able to look at the credentials of one doctor and another and make an informed decision," Mr. Weinbach says.

In fact, sometimes focusing on the process — the physicians and equipment — may discourage increased patient volume, according to Mr. Weinbach. He cites the popularity of the da Vinci robot for minimally invasive surgery. "It's a pretty scary looking device. It would not make somebody want to go in for surgery. Yet, hospitals were so proud they invested in advanced technology that they featured it prominently in advertising instead of focusing on what patients really wanted: faster recovery and less pain from robotic surgery."
Emphasizing the outcomes, however, does not mean completely excluding physicians from the marketing message. "You have to have some flexibility and recognize that messages can't all focus on the benefit without identifying some of the features, because some features can be benefits," Mr. Weinbach says. "The core question most patients ask themselves is 'Who is best going to deliver the benefits I'm looking to receive?' Part of that equation is the alleviation of pain, the curing of the disease, [but] also 'Who's going to make me feel better during that process? Will the staff treat me well?'"

7. Education. Education is an effective marketing tool for targeting both patients and referring physicians. For patients, hospitals can provide education through seminars on particular procedures, such as bariatric surgery or joint replacement; health screenings; mobile van clinics; and newspaper columns. Mr. Maglothin says local community papers will often welcome physicians or other hospital representatives to write weekly columns on services for the community, garnering significant visibility and recognition for the hospital.

Hospitals can provide education for referring physicians through direct outreach to physician practices about the hospital's services and specialists. Mr. Maglothin says that with the rise of hospitalists, primary care physicians are not visiting hospitals as frequently, making in-person visits to referring physicians' offices more important for marketing. He suggests meeting with referring physicians to notify them of changes within the program, such as new specialists, procedures or protocols.

In addition to general information and check-ins, hospitals should educate primary care physicians by providing data on the program's outcomes. "Physicians are very data-driven," Mr. Higman says. "They trust the opinion of colleagues and reputed academic journals and real hard data." He suggests hospitals benchmark themselves internally to provide physicians with specific information on the specialty program's performance on various metrics, for physicians' first consideration in referrals is the potential benefit to their patients. Moreover, hospitals should not limit benchmarking or reporting to only positive outcomes. "The more honest, the better," Mr. Higman says. "You want to be able to share with them in an open and honest way what the infection rates are, what the complication rates are." Standard certifications and awards, however, although true, are not the most informative facts to share with referring physicians. "If every hospital has the same certification and is doing the same procedures, it's not [going to] impress physicians. Facilities should be trying to get published based on new and innovative ways of taking care of patients. They should be trying to share that information with other hospitals at conferences; impress referring physicians from a thought leadership perspective," Mr. Higman says.

8. Physician outreach. Not only should hospitals proactively teach referring physicians about their programs, but they should also make an effort to learn about the referral base. "[The hospital] needs to be very current on who the current staffing is [in the referring physicians' offices] and who the game changers are in the referral pattern," Mr. Maglothin says. He suggests attending meetings of hospitalists, emergency physician groups and other physicians who affect the service line to hear and address their concerns about the specialty program.

9. Improved operations. Finally, operational improvements should be part of a hospital's marketing strategy for their specialty programs. "First market to [referring physicians] through operations," Mr. Maglothin says. He says one of the top concerns of physicians who refer to specialty programs is having a guarantee their patients will be seen quickly and their test results will be reported in a timely manner. Service line leaders can appeal to referring physicians by eliminating scheduling bottlenecks and delays in reporting test results. Mr. Maglothin suggests surveying referring physicians at least annually to identify problems and opportunities for improvement, and to then follow-up with these physicians on changes made. "The goal is to build trust and confidence in the referring physician base. I've found the overall majority of barriers to that [involve] operational bottlenecks. It doesn't do me any good to have the best center if they always get a busy signal and [their patient] can't get in to see a doctor," he says.

Hospitals can eliminate bottlenecks through technology, continual monitoring and creating a patient-centered culture, according to Mr. Maglothin. For instance, he says a fax server with an automatic fax service can ensure no physician receives a busy signal. Patient waits should be monitored and capped at two to five business days, and the schedule should be designed to allow a same-day appointment if requested. "It's tough to do sometimes, but at the same time, if you do it consistently, it very definitely builds more volume than running an ad," he says.

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