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The Big Story: What Starts Here Saves Lives – AAMC

“Academic medicine touches the lives of Americans every day. The AAMC’s vast network of over 150 medical schools, approximately 400 teaching hospitals and nearly 80 academic societies help drive research and innovation, provide complex patient care, promote health equity and physician workforce diversity, educate and train future physicians, and collaborate with local communities.”

Academics on the front foot

By Tim Stewart
3-minute read

If you’ve felt like your healthcare organization has been on its back foot recently, off balance or in a defensive posture, you’re not alone. Critiques of hospitals and health systems abound, ranging from executive compensation to tax exempt status to price opacity and more.

When you’re constantly ducking and dodging the jabs of well-funded critics, it’s tough to catch your balance.

The AAMC’s What Starts Here Saves Lives campaign helps academic health systems get their footing. It’s anchored by a 90-second video telling a clear, data-driven and emotionally engaging story. Yet it’s just one example of a much wider movement among AMCs to evolve and reposition themselves. These necessary efforts to redefine AMCs on their own terms provides a gameplan for any type of provider wanting to shift its weight forward and go on the offense.

Let’s look at lessons from the larger movement, using What Starts Here as a tangible example that you can take back to your team – whether your email ends in .edu, .org or .com.

Plant a flag

They’ve been hard to come by recently: full-throated affirmations of large healthcare providers. It feels a lot less comfortable making the case for a big organization than a small one. It’s also easier to target the big organization. Today, we’re seeing AMCs step up. They’re making a bold statement of intent about why they matter – to society, to the economy, to the health of the individual patient lying on the operating table. And that clear intent, exemplified by What Starts Here, makes it a refreshing change of pace.

Actionable takeaway: Know who you are and be able to speak to it. Define yourself in the marketplace and in the constellation of healthcare institutions. Your organization does countless things, small and large, every day, that add up to immense value for your community. Don’t allow your organization to be defined by someone else’s definitions of what a hospital should do or be. Instead, be proactive in presenting a full – and yes, honest – picture of who you are. Tell your story on your terms

Read the tea leaves

The AAMC is anticipating member organizations’ turn in the harsh spotlight. Look at the recent history of hospital scrutiny. First it was for-profits: Could driving cash to shareholders be compatible with the mission-oriented nature of care? Then not-for-profits: Are they doing enough to justify their tax breaks? Or are they just acting like Big Business? Seems a fair bet that many of the same lines of attack will be headed for academic healthcare.

On top of that, many AMCs are affiliated with public universities. Those institutions are accustomed to a different level of oversight, sparring with state legislators, where other not-for-profit providers may have a line to the governor but little else. In short, state politics affect public academics, and statehouses across the country are showing more appetite for taking shots at providers.

Actionable takeaway: Healthcare providers who sit back and hope the storm will blow over are going to be caught in the downpour. If it hasn’t started raining on you yet, use the clear skies to your advantage and take that offensive stance noted above. 

Differentiation matters

Foundational to AMCs’ work towards redefining themselves is showcasing the idea that “We’re different.” You can see it in What Starts Here. And no, before you ask, that doesn’t mean the AAMC is saying that other types of healthcare organizations are bad or less or anything negative. It’s simply pointing out the specifics of academic medicine. “What we do is different. Here’s how and why.” And “We do things others don’t.” That’s crucial. Establishing differences reinforces why a variety of approaches are needed, with – in this case – AMCs filling a specific niche. So, the subtext of these widening efforts at evolution and redefinition become, “Take us down and here’s what you’ll lose.”

Actionable Takeaway: What do you do that’s different? For academic medicine as a whole, the differentiation includes educating researchers and healthcare workers, research and innovation. For a community hospital, it could be that intimate connection with the neighborhoods served and specific intervention programs designed for the local population. Find your differentiators and own them. Know your unique value and lean hard into it. Talk about how your stability keeps necessary services – everything from actual medical care to jobs – up and running.

Eroding trust

Your century-old name can’t protect you. Not completely anyway. Trust in institutions, including healthcare, has declined. The halo of trust that people have in doctors and nurses and the mission of care doesn’t radiate as strongly to your buildings and your brand. The AAMC clearly recognizes this in its proactive campaign. It’s shoring up a foundation before critics chip away at it. In a sense, it’s a way of saying, “Here’s all that we do, so cut us some slack.” For example, if you’re a state medical school educating more than half the doctors in the state, that’s a big deal. It may not be a Community Benefit as defined by some, but it sure is a benefit in those communities.

Actionable takeaway: Define your terms and don’t rely on history to do the work that lies ahead. For a long time, the basic message from healthcare providers has been, “We offer compassion and save lives.” That’s still true, but the message doesn’t land the way it once did. Think of the attacks: “You claim to be compassionate, but you sent your patients to collections. You say you save lives, but you closed your neighborhood clinic.” These are tough counters. Take a hard look at your organization’s messages and practices to identify where you might be handing critics the chisel and hammer. Be willing to talk about those missteps. Then take your strong differentiators and craft your authentic story that builds trust. Show how your organization guides people – individual patients, communities, society as a whole – towards better health. Take a stance.

Working to articulate your mission and build support for the work you do advancing healthcare? Get in touch using the form below.