Not your usual hospital ad: 'If our beds are filled, it means we've failed'

The transition to value-based care and subsequent focus on preventive health has hospitals making new investments, particularly in advertising.

The healthcare industry spent $14 billion on advertising in 2014, an increase of nearly 20 percent since 2011, according to The New York Times, which cites data from Kantar Media. And while spending on healthcare advertising grows, hospital ads and campaigns are taking on a different message under a population health strategy.

Rather than focusing on a surgical specialty, new robotic device or national ranking, some health systems are taking out ad space to get patients and consumers in on their population health strategy. The ads carry a different tone and emphasize a lower acuity of services.

Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, for instance, took out ads in national newspapers to declare, "If our beds are filled, it means we've failed." Intermountain in Salt Lake City positions itself as "Helping People Live the Healthiest Lives Possible," emphasizing wellness outside the facility. A commercial for Downers Grove, Ill.-based Advocate Medical Group asks viewers, "How do you live your healthiest life?" In its 33-second run, it not once includes shots of a physician, medical office or hospital. And NYC Health + Hospitals recently began a preventive health campaign promoting sexual health to young adults with emojis on social media.

Mount Sinai Health System's bold ad campaign

Mount Sinai Health System's population health advertising campaign began two years after the 2013 merger of Continuum Health Partners and Mount Sinai Medical Center, two of New York City's largest hospital systems. The system rebranded as Mount Sinai Health System and began to cover three boroughs with seven hospitals, more than 6,000 physicians and more than 300 community locations. Leaders wanted to get that message out to the public.

So the organization launched a print ad campaign designed to showcase its impact on New York City neighborhoods, contributions to research and education and collaborations in local and global communities. Mount Sinai Health System said the campaign marked the final element of a multi-channel marketing effort, where the organization promoted its new brand across many digital and traditional channels.

The first print advertisement, headlined "Most New York neighborhoods have a deli, a dry cleaners, a Chinese restaurant and a Mount Sinai," debuted July 19, 2015, in The New York Times. The second advertisement, which debuted later in July 2015, declared "If our beds are filled, it means we've failed."

"The two themes of the campaign were, 'We're a different sort of system. We're in your community. We're accessible' and 'We're focused on health and wellness,'" said Niyum Gandhi, executive vice president and chief population health officer for Mount Sinai Health System. "We already had the brand recognition for other areas such as complex surgeries and oncology, but this was to say, 'We're focused on population health as well.'"

The first phase of the ad campaign, with the two population health advertisements and several others, ran through October 2015 and appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and local commuter and community newspapers. Digital and social media campaigns also complemented the print ad campaign.

The print ad campaign, which was driven by the system's CEO and executive leadership, was a bold move for Mount Sinai Health System, as the organization was ultimately declaring, "We're not just about the hospital anymore."

The message was that "the system is still going to deliver exceptional care to those who need complex care. But we're looking at it and saying if we do our job up front in preventive care, there shouldn't be that many people in the hospital," Mr. Gandhi said.

He acknowledged that the efforts likely made some lower level administrators, who didn't understand the shift, or some physicians, uncomfortable. He recalled a conversation with the CEO of a different health system who was shocked when he saw Mount Sinai Health System's print advertisements.

"Some people might look at that and say, 'You don't care about the cutting-edge medicine. You don't care about the high-acuity care. But that's not true. We're just saying we care about something else also," Mr. Gandhi said. Additionally, Mr. Gandhi said some people may have asked, "What if this population health is a fad? What if accountable care organizations become the next HMOs and we swing back in the other direction again?"

While those concerns could be legitimate, he said Mount Sinai Health System executives feel population health is the future.

"If you're announcing this bold and publicly, you have to stick to it," he said. "We're committed and we're comfortable with that. There are a lot of health systems out there who are viewing population health as a hedge strategy, and for them, I feel it would be a greater risk in doing something like this."

And so far, the feedback has generally been positive. Mr. Gandhi carried the advertisements around with him for months. When he shared the advertisements at meetings with payers and plan sponsors, people indicated they thought it was great Mount Sinai Health System is willing to publicly declare their commitment to population health.

Gordon Sleeper, with DeVito/Verdi ad agency in New York City, which worked on Mount Sinai Health system's print ad campaign, said he hasn't noticed any other hospital or health system willing to draw a line in the sand and say, "If our beds are filled, it means we've failed."

"Mount Sinai has very publicly committed to being a leader in population health. That said, many hospitals are advertising programs to promote healthier living, and many health systems are working to keep people healthier and out of the hospital," he said.

Mr. Sleeper said advertising population health to the public is more like public service advertising. Hospitals are trying to nudge customers into modifying bad habits: eat right, lose weight, exercise. He said this new style of advertising is trying to modify risk factors that can create health problems in the future. 

NYC Health + Hospitals' fresh and social media-savvy campaign for teens

Another health system offering a new style of advertising is New York City Health + Hospitals.

The public health system typically does very little advertising, which is one reason its latest campaign is noteworthy. Its latest ads are calculated to reach adolescents to promote the sexual and reproductive healthcare services offered at 20 special YouthHealth locations. The campaign specifically targets New Yorkers age 12 to 21. 

As part of the campaign, young New Yorkers started seeing messages with popular emojis. The emojis, on Facebook, Instagram and other platforms, include an eggplant and a peach that appear with the words: "Need to talk to someone about 'it'?" A monkey emoji with its hands over its mouth offers advice on how to get confidential access to emergency contraception.

By clicking on the emojis, users are taken to a new youth health services website with information on services available at the clinics, locations and phone numbers.

"This is a shift to underscore our health system's transformationfrom sick care to well care with an emphasis on prevention,” said Ann Ormsby, senior director of brand implementation and marketing at NYC Health + Hospitals. “We want to give adolescents the information they need to make good choices to prevent problems before they happen. In this instance with our youth health campaign, we would rather a teen come in and get birth control than wait until they have an unintended pregnancy."

Ms. Ormsby said the health system felt youth would be attracted to the emojis and therefore be more likely to click on them. Hospital officials also felt youth would share the images, thus expanding the organization's reach. The health system worked with VGD marketing and ad agency in New York City to come up with a campaign that would speak to youth in their own language.

Robbie Szelei, director of strategy at VGD, said this campaign was particularly challenging because he and the health system were trying to get through to youth specifically, while talking about the sometimes uncomfortable subject of sexual and reproductive health. They also wanted to keep the message positive and hopeful, and they didn't want the advertisements to single anybody out.

Before reaching the decision to use emojis, the health system ran a focus group of youth to test out emojis. The results were positive.

"I think there were approximately 15 kids in the room, and they loved it. They just immediately thought it was funny. They all knew what the eggplant was and had seen it before and so it really spoke to them in a familiar way," Ms. Ormsby said.

In addition to the social media campaign and the new website, the campaign includes posters, brochures, wallet-size cards with the website address and ad panels that will be posted in city hospitals, according to NYC Health + Hospitals. Community-based organizations near NYC Health + Hospitals health centers are partnering with the system to distribute the materials.

The campaign kicked off July 18. Since then, the system has already had about 22,600 unique page views on the campaign website. The goal of the campaign is to increase use of youth health services at NYC Health + Hospitals by 25 percent by the year 2020. 


More articles about healthcare leadership and management:
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7 hospital, health system layoffs in August

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