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The Big Story: The Healthcare Divide

The healthcare industry was tossed out of the pandemic frying pan and into the media fire this week when NPR and “FRONTLINE” aired The Healthcare Divide, their joint investigation into the growing inequities in American healthcare exposed by COVID-19. More scrutiny came Wednesday when the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on provider consolidation and antitrust issues. Then on Friday the New York Times ran a story about COVID-19 bills.

Our Take

(3-minute read; 10-minute podcast)

Healthcare providers, it’s time to think less like institutions and more like your detractors.

The halo your organization earned through the pandemic is dimming as the negative spotlight shifts back onto institutions providing care. Everyone’s in on the game. Unions are trying to drive a wedge between provider organizations and healthcare workers. The media is collecting hospital bills from readers. Lawmakers are considering how to wield their antitrust powers. Payers are claiming providers are responsible for the high cost of care. And when consumers truly get on board, winter won’t be coming, it’ll be here.

So why aren’t healthcare organizations consistently better at addressing these arguments? Why do responses often sound weak and platitude-rich – like bland, gray word salad? Like they’re ducking the debate?

Fact is, many still aren’t harnessing the power of communications to tell stories in a human way and are thereby yielding their positions as the owners of patient advocacy. Writ large, the provider side of the industry has traditionally operated from a stance of defense and risk management.

But the pandemic showed us a different way; to tell true-grit stories of how they were making the impossible work.

Let’s hold onto that “what works” and make it permanent.

Because all eyes are on provider behavior. Trotting out outdated studies or spreadsheets won’t cut it. That approach doesn’t hold a candle to the other groups bringing in patients harmed by alleged anti-competitive behavior, telling stories of healthcare workers living on food stamps and being sued by their own employer and painting private equity rollups as dirty, get-rich-quick schemes.

Each of those scenarios has taken place at a national level, but similar conversations are happening in local markets. Want to be prepared for when the spotlight turns to your organization? Consider the following.

  • Define the terms. It’s your story, so own it from the start. Use people. Back it with data. Be straightforward. Words like “integration” may help obscure some of the baggage carried by “merger” or “consolidation.” But people need to understand what you’re talking about. Hospital administrators must be masters at simplifying the complexity of business. Lack of clarity leads to frustration and confusion in the long run.
  • Learn the language. What motivates your hospital isn’t always what motivates the PE firm, payer or union who’s sitting across the table from you as you hammer out a partnership. Don’t talk past them. Understand what they’re trying to accomplish, how they think about the industry and the tools/tactics they like to use. Then address the actual issues they’re bringing to the conversation and articulate how you balance operating a company with providing for a critical need.
  • Be specific. Make it a practice to avoid vagaries. You’re better served calling out datasets and concerns specifically. That way, when it comes time for a rebuttal, you’re addressing a real idea rather than muddying the waters and leaving yourself open to interpretation.
  • Don’t keep using the same narratives. People today are responding to things right in front of them – an unexpected hospital bill, changes in the local labor market, mothballing of services at the community hospital. You need to do the same. Stop running with that same old consolidation study. Align yourself with your doctors, nurses and staff and show specifically what you’re doing businesswise to provide support. If you’re called out for negative effects, respond with responsible transparency and humility, not defensiveness.
  • Call out the bad actors. Yes, there are some in every industry niche who don’t have good motives. Don’t sweep that under the rug, because it’ll just mean you get lumped in with them. Some critics, like the Judiciary Committee, are questioning if the PE model is compatible with providing care. If you’re working to show that it is, you need to share the good stories, but be willing to acknowledge when your peers don’t live up to expectations.

Want more? Check out the 10-minute conversation featuring Jarrard Inc.’s David Jarrard and Isaac Squyres:

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