'Focus on creating great experiences': How healthcare marketing is evolving

In rural areas, where hospitals are shuttering or are no longer offering care such as labor and delivery, patients have no choice but to travel for healthcare. However, in and around big cities, the situation is the opposite: competition between hospitals to attract patients is fierce.

In Northern New Jersey, a heavily populated region just over the bridges from New York City, there is no shortage of hospitals for patients to choose from, so it is incumbent upon healthcare systems to be at the top of their marketing game. 

Mike Maron, president and CEO of Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, N.J., told Becker's his hospital's marketing strategy begins long before a patient steps into the building. A decade ago, Holy Name scooped up four digital billboards and every rotation on those billboards in a highly trafficked area and has been using them to go beyond traditional marketing messaging. When people are stuck in their cars waiting for traffic to move, the billboards are easy attention grabbers.

"We believe that we're part of the community — we're an integral part of the community. Trust is critical and if you want human beings to trust you, you can't act as an organization; you have to act more human," Mr. Maron said. "We use the billboards to express our humanity as an organization. We want to remind people that we are part of the community just like they are. We're not just here pushing our services." 

Of course, sometimes the billboards advertise the medical center's specialties, a new initiative or a public service announcement. Even with a crackerjack marketing team, Mr. Maron said the patient experience begins at the top, and that is why he keeps an eye on hospital messaging — always quick to use the billboards to cheer on the community's successes.

For example, during the 2023 NCAA tournament, Teaneck-based Fairleigh Dickinson University — a No. 16 seed — beat No. 1-seeded Purdue University, based in West Lafayette, Ind. Two of Holy Name's digital billboards boasted about the hometown team's Cinderella story. 

"We were excited to be able to congratulate Fairleigh Dickinson and to acknowledge the team's great success," Mr. Maron said. "The team's success is our community's success, too."

More than messaging

Many healthcare systems around the country completed major marketing rebrands since the beginning of the pandemic. Becker's talked with hospitals leaders all across the country and found, far and wide, marketing messaging that is patient-centered and safety-focused works.

Three examples are Saint Peter's University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., Oaklawn Hospital in Marshall, Mich., and Hartford Healthcare in Connecticut.

At Saint Peter's, the goal of "providing service excellence throughout a patient’s journey is threaded" throughout the healthcare system's marketing messaging, according to Michelle Lazzarotti, the organization's senior director of marketing. 

"Our 'One Focus' themed campaign demonstrates our advocacy for our patients, always striving for clinical quality and patient safety and treating the entire person — mind, body and spirit — with the highest level of skill and compassion," she said.

Oaklawn's marketing coordinator, Sara Jeffery, said her team's strategy also puts patients first. "Our tagline is 'Real People. Real Care' because we pride ourselves on putting our patients first. Our patients won't feel like just a number here."

Hartford HealthCare's new brand campaign is called "Start Here," and it encourages consumers to do just that. 

"The campaign uses vibrant visuals and a bold style that instantly communicates that this is not your traditional healthcare ad — nor your typical health system," Keith Fontaine, vice president of marketing and branding.

"Patients want easier access to care. They deserve more affordable care options. Our goal in this campaign is to spark a bold idea," said Mr. Fontaine, quoting the health system's new marketing video. "'It's time to question the status quo, to challenge assumptions and innovate every day.' This puts patients at the very center of the story — right where they belong."

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles doubled down on humanizing healthcare when the COVID-19 pandemic started. Alan Dubovsky, the system's chief patient experience officer, told Becker's he and senior leadership at the medical center discovered the keys to providing the best patient experience are safety and trust.

"We never really understood, or never really appreciated, how much people needed that [messaging] from us. I think we always just assumed that people expected [hospitals] to be safe. And we assumed patients trusted us," Mr. Dubovsky said, noting early 2020 became an optimal time to re-energize Cedars-Sinai's patient-focused marketing strategy.

A video — one still shown today — was created within a month of the start of the pandemic in mid-2020 and shown to every patient admitted to the hospital. "We so appreciate you trusting us," Mr. Dubovsky said, paraphrasing the video's message. "Like the rest of the world, we know you have a lot of questions about what's going on. While we may not have every answer for you, what we can tell you is you're safe, you're in good hands and we're here to take care of you."

Before the onset of COVID-19, some elements of patient experience were "boxed into a cookie cutter approach," Mr. Dubovsky said, adding that the pandemic did give systems such as Cedars-Sinai a moment to reconsider how to approach everything — from feedback to marketing — through a new lens. 

"In the context of a pandemic we thought, 'If there was ever a time to try something new, let's do it now,'" he said. "Truthfully, I think COVID gave us the flexibility and the freedom to be able to really try out leveraging new platforms and new innovative ways of capturing patient feedback and earning trust, too." 

The importance of culture

Earning a patient's trust is vital, but the "commercialization of healthcare" makes it a hard thing to do, Mr. Maron said. 

"With all the heavy advertising, patients view hospitals as businesses. Every hospital is pushing, pushing, pushing. It's cold and it's calculating. People feel that," he said. 

If you are going to be in business, try the "wellness business," Mr. Maron said. "At Holy Name, we know we can't wait for people to get sick to connect with them. We want to be in the wellness business; we want to have relationships that are not transactional."

Mr. Maron said hospital leaders must realize that "culture" is more than a buzzword. 

"Culture is a strong force that will determine the success or failure of your organization," he said. "Harness everything to strengthen the positive culture you want to create and be consistent about it. Also, make sure it's going to differentiate you in a very crowded field."

Patrice Sada, director of patient experience at Baptist Health Miami (Fla.) Cancer Institute, said her hospital's newest marketing initiative is a reflection of a culture that focuses on patients and their loved ones.

"It challenges each of us throughout the healthcare system to demonstrate compassion with each interaction with our patients and visitors," Ms. Sada said. "It is a simple yet powerful hospitality practice that provides the opportunity to create a memorable patient experience."

In the end, marketing efforts have one particular job to do: get patients in the door. Providing an excellent experience that will break down competitive barriers and create lifelong customers is the job of patient-facing employees and clinicians.

Jason Guardino, DO, chief experience officer for Oakland, Calif.-based The Permanente Medical Group in Northern California, said, "When hospitals provide excellent experiences, patients report having very good experiences.

"Therefore, we have to teach doctors and nurses to focus on creating great experiences. When we do that, they become more meticulous about the quality of the care they provide. They have higher-quality standards and, because of their patient-focused mindset, they're less likely to make medical errors. And, ultimately, there are better patient outcomes."

And that is really what success in a hospital looks like: better patient outcomes. Recalling the Robin Williams movie Patch Adams, Mr. Maron said, "You treat the disease, you win or you lose. You treat the person, you win every time."

As systems approach begin to move toward preparing for the end of the public health emergency come May, core marketing messaging that reflects patient well-being even in times of uncertainty and transition are likely to remain a constant thread.

In the event of a future pandemic, injecting patient voice, concerns, feedback and experience into messaging will be key to maintaining trust, Mr. Dubovsky said.

"I think in the blink of an eye, things can change — COVID has taught us that," he said. "It has been a roller coaster of patients, emotion and sentiment, but nothing will get you further than listening to your patients' voices in real time, in my opinion. If you are starting a new campaign, build a platform that allows you to, in real time, capture what patients really want to share with you, and then build messaging around that."

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