Have you noticed this lately? You go to mainstream news sites — like, say, boston.com or our own wbur.org — and see ads (no, wait, in public radio we call it “underwriting”) by local hospitals. I’m not exactly objective about financial support for journalism. The ads gladden my heart. I also couldn’t help wondering: What’s up? In my old newspaper days, you couldn’t sell an ad for a health-and-science section to save your life.
But the world of the Internet is different. Health is among the most-searched-for topics, and all those searches translate into potential patients. Also possibly at work to boost hospital ads: rising competition for privately insured patients and the growth of a smart-shopper mentality among health care users. We don’t have local numbers, but nationally, hospital ad spending has been rising steadily. Here in Boston, you can barely turn on your TV these days without running into an ad about a local hospital or health insurer, whether it’s a Steward “Believe” ad during the Super-bowl or a Partners ad like this one:
I can imagine a lively debate about this phenomenon, at a time of increasing emphasis on cutting health costs. The governor of New Hampshire, Democrat John Lynch, recently complained about hospital ad spending in a budget speech, saying that hospitals were using “excess cash” on ads to grab more patients instead of to cut costs. On the other hand, here in Massachusetts, everyone keeps talking about how certain 800-pound hospitals have a disproportionate share of the market; mightn’t ads help shift that? And to the extent ads convey information beyond pure salesmanship, mightn’t they make for better health care consumers?
I spoke recently with Tom Simons, CEO and chief creative officer of the Boston marketing firm PARTNERS+simons, about the local landscape of hospital advertising. Tom, who is also chairman of the Board of Trustees at Mount Auburn Hospital, predicts that hospital advertising will continue to grow here, further spurred by health care reform, and that the tenor of many ads will change as hospitals learn that “patient-centric” messages are the most effective. His firm has recently worked on campaigns for Tufts Medical Center and Emerson Hospital. Herewith, his analysis, lightly paraphrased:
Why more ads now?
There’s an old saying, “If you want to find a Boston teaching hospital, you look for a crane.” But in fact, today, hospital patient volumes are looking like they are into a downward trend — there’s a lot of discussion about this. This is creating an evolving set of conditions that is resulting in some really aggressive marketing:
-Hospitals are very interested in spending to reach and sell patients who have commercial insurance. These are patients who are more willing to make their own decisions about where to go for care, and their medical reimbursement rates are the highest. They have a large number of elective procedures. Patients with commercial insurance have become more important as government reimbursement rates for those with public insurance (Medicare and Medicaid) have not kept pace with hospital cost structures. But don’t get me wrong, all admits and discharges are important.
-There’s huge growth in the availability of comparative data on hospital quality and safety, patient satisfaction and outcomes. We’re seeing the creation of a health-care-consuming public, and these people are increasingly aware that quality is not consistent among all hospitals, and the highest quality isn’t always where we expected.
-One of the most transformative factors has been the eagerness of people to use the Internet to research where they can get good quality care, research their conditions, and so on. Health-related searches are something like the third-most-common online activity.
So if you just connect the dots, there’s so much search going on online, so much research going on online, and this is a marketing channel that hospitals weren’t using as actively five or six years ago. And they’ve realized that as search increases, they need to make sure that their message is a part of the Internet activity their potential patients are involved in.
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