Building Business Fitness? Opt For Healthy Marketing Diet Over Ops Belt Tightening

Building Business Fitness? Opt for Healthy Marketing Diet over Ops Belt Tightening

The word’s out: revenue and volume growth is in. Cost-cutting is out.

Well, cost-cutting is never completely out, but, the trend towards growth over cuts has been validated by the Advisory Board’s annual healthcare survey of health system C-suiters.

While Advisory Board analysts are quick to point out that historically low margins mean cost containment will – and should – remain a major strategic priority, many systems have come to acknowledge that they cannot cut their way to relevance and longevity. If a health system is to survive in the coming decade, that operational savvy must be met with an equal focus on consumerism, physician alignment and superior accessibility.

Let’s look at what leaders listed for the Advisory Board as their “A list priorities” for this year:

  • Improving Ambulatory Access – 57%
  • Strengthening Primary Care Alignment – 6%
  • Redesigning Services for Population Health – 51.9%

This pendulum swing is good news for health system marketers, who have been somewhat sidelined while their organizations have been primarily focused on tightening their operational belts or moving the needles on supply chain and revenue cycle metrics. Historically, many health system marketing programs focused on “image and awareness”, not driving priorities like those listed above. Good marketing is, by design, built to drive preference, innovation and the ‘Big G’ – Growth. So, suit up your marketers! Ideally, they’ve been sharpening their skills in the lull and are ready to get in the game and play some offense.

If this approach feels new or out-of-scope for your organization’s marketing program, here are three places to start:

Skill #1 – Leverage Consumer Choice

Every day, I review marketing programs designed to “create awareness of our hospitals’ services.” Here’s the hard truth: The vast majority of healthcare markets in the country are seeing flat or negative population growth. In a market serving 50,000 households, I promise you – they know your hospital is there. What they don’t know: Why should they choose you?

Even in a higher-growth market, that ideal customer you desire? She has choices – more choices than ever before. Your marketing team should focus fewer resources on telling people who and what your system has, and more in differentiating, perfecting and communicating products and services that those target customers actually want. For example, do you see a large population of children in your ED? Seniors? Spanish-speaking customers? What do we know, what can we learn about the specific needs and preferences of these populations, and how can we design our advertising, collateral and in-house experience to meet them BETTER than our competitors do? In the age of digital and social communication, our customers frame the conversation – not us. Marketers need to consistently ask the right questions, actively listen and build messaging and experiences to influence choice for their products and services.

Skill #2 – Get Sticky

Sadly, the days of patients building a relationship with a single “family doctor” – even in the smallest of towns – is pretty much over. Nearly 70% of hospital customers will utilize more than one health system brand within a two-year period, and two-thirds of primary care patients indicate they would definitely switch providers to get a quicker or more convenient appointment time. Urgent care centers have catapulted in popularity, primarily because they appear to always be RIGHT THERE where and when we need them. This is a game changer for those who compete in primary and emergency care services, as well as in any of the downstream ancillary services typically fed from the top of the care funnel.

The patient journey is built on what marketers call the “connective tissue” of the health system, and refers to your health system’s ability to be “sticky”. When C-suiters list “improve ambulatory access” at the very top of their priority lists, I believe this is what drives them: How do I ensure I have the right door open to the right patient, in the right place and at the right time? And once I capture them, how do I KEEP them? Enter today’s healthcare marketing expert, focused on staging each step of the patient’s journey. An illustration:

Patient arrives in your ED with stomach pain and is cleared of any imminent danger. No definitive diagnosis is found, but patient is discharged with a GI specialist appointment for the next day. The GI doc (whom your system ideally employs) informs the patient in the office that they have received and reviewed the labs and notes from the ED visit, and the next step of the care plan has already been mapped out. A preliminary imaging appointment has been secured for them this afternoon, for their convenience and peace of mind. That evening, the patient gets a call from the ED discharge planner, asking how the consult went and if there’s anything they can do to help with next steps.

This is thoroughly doable and worthy of your ‘marketing’ investment. It’s what your competitors are already driving toward, and you do not want to be five years late to this party. If your marketing strategy doesn’t involve secret shopping at primary care practices, central scheduling, ED discharge and even patient parking consistently so that you may understand your patient’s journey, your program needs to be evaluated. (Note: The ‘physician journey’ is equally important, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

Skill #3 – Marketing the Ambulatory Experience

The biggest change for health system execs in this decade is likely the rapid shift to outpatient care. There are many great leaders who have years of experience building and running large, successful acute care hospitals with overflowing beds and medical staff roaming the halls at all hours. The shift away from this model has been dramatically quick and has left many highly competent leaders scrambling to design programs that can compete in this “what’s next” space. Your marketing team’s value should be in helping to define how you can lean into that transition for your organization.

Be a data champion. It’s critical that marketers be versed in who your target customers are, what their evolving needs, wants and behaviors are, and how the competitive landscape is structured. Marketers need to get their hands on all available data; becoming besties with the CFO and/or IT leader. They should, for instance, always have top-of-mind the wait times for a primary care appointment within your system, vs. those of the competitors, etc.

Drive the new narrative. Words matter. Marketers should be able to help your organization make the shift to an outpatient world by inserting its relevant language into the conversation. If your growth meetings revolve around census counts and inpatient surgeries, task marketers to help your team move toward metrics like annual wellness visits, new PCP patients, chronic disease management and online scheduling utilization. Over time, these KPIs will become muscle memory and match the new reality.

As the pendulum swings back toward volume and revenue growth targets, marketers should jump at the chance to switch from defensive to offensive play, and to solidify their roles as the growth and change agents of the future, rather than the advertising and event specialists of the past. It’s on the C-suite leaders to open that seat at the table, and to help set the evolving expectation of this role within the organization.

Are you a marketer, or want to help out the marketers on your team? Check out a slightly different version of this article on LinkedIn

Kim Reynolds