Hospitals used to attract new patients almost entirely through referrals made by family physicians. However, as consumers take a more active role in their healthcare - including by sifting through the increasing availability of health information online - hospitals have had to adopt a stronger consumer strategy that encompasses media relations, community outreach, and digital and social media.
"Consumers have become more assertive in terms of their health- care," says Camela Morrissey, VP and CMO for New York Hospital Queens. "We want to make sure we are at the top of that prescription pad by getting the referral from the physician, but also the consumer's selection."
The hospital has devoted more marketing dollars to reach out to its communities. More than 50% of its patients are of Asian descent. Given the ethnic media's fragmentation, media relations has proven the most effective way to reach them.
Doctors on call
Hospitals would be wise to seek out new media channels, including digital-based ones, for physician outreach, advises MaryEllen O'Donohue, EVP, strategy and creativity at GCI Health. This is particularly important, she adds, as it has become more difficult for doctors to gain media exposure through traditional outlets such as the television morning shows, which all have their own resident health experts.
"I have seen practitioners get great exposure to a large potential pa- tient base through things such as Doctor Radio on Sirius XM," O'Donohue says. Another strategy, she notes, is to position doctors as a research re-source for health reporters and on-air physicians, with a long-term goal of landing them some press coverage.
Along with working one on one with media outlets to provide relevant health information, Morrissey says her hospital also stages press conferences targeted at particular ethnic groups.
"It's unlikely I would have a press conference to the general public on something straight- forward," she explains. "But it can be a mass tool in communities such as the Chinese and Korean because they not only attract media, but also members of the public and elected officials."
Media relations also plays a key role in helping influence a hospital's reputation, says Mary Lynn Carver, SVP, communications and public affairs for the University of Maryland Medical Center.
"There is a greater degree of public transparency of data, such as infection rates and other core measures that are being generated about hospitals and reported in the media," she says. "The PR function must be connected to other departments so we're aware of that data before it is published and we can decide what we will do with that information."
Nancy Longley, EVP, healthcare and public affairs for Weber Shandwick, says that can be an asset for enterprising hospitals.
"There is an increasing focus on linking better patient outcomes to reputation that has not existed before," she notes. "In that way, effective communications can be very closely aligned with a hospital's business outcomes, which is exciting from a PR perspective."
Online is playing a particularly key role for hospitals, both in terms of reputation and awareness. New York Hospital Queens has embarked on a geo-targeted test with Vitals.com, in which it will provide additional information about its doctors on the appointment-booking site.
"I think of it as social media for patients," says Morrissey. "Once someone becomes a patient through Vitals.com, they can write a review about their experience with us."
Sentara Healthcare, which operates 10 acute-care hospitals in Virginia and North Carolina, monitors Facebook comments to make what Emma Inman, corporate communications director, calls "customer-service saves."
She cites a recent example of an individual who posted a Facebook message expressing her frustration that no one had provided a timely update about her loved one in surgery. "We were able to engage our patient advocates to find that person and give them some information," says Inman. "It is a tool to better serve our patients."
Sentara also has a blog, with postings of interest to both staff and patients.
"The next frontier for us is to get some really active physician bloggers," says Inman. "The credibility of a physician voice would be of great value."