Healthy competition

Hospitals are branding themselves in a bid to attract patients.

Hospitals are branding themselves in a bid to attract patients.

At New York's Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), the sports medicine group treats the all-stars of the country's college and professional teams.

Yet the specialty medical center, which was operating near capacity, wanted to drive outpatient procedures ahead of a major expansion. Although HSS already had a strong reputation, "it was a different level of visibility," says Deborah Sale, EVP of marketing.

The hospital brought in Edelman to tout the prowess of its physicians, who treat some of the world's athletic greats. The sports medicine group was also well positioned to handle patients in need of outpatient or rehab services that don't require long hospital stays.

"We have a pretty strong sense of our market in this region," Sale notes. "These were strengths that we knew we could build upon."

HSS is part of a growing trend of specialty hospitals trying to draw a savvier group of patients who are more knowledgeable - and more opinionated - about where they receive care.

Even hospitals that offer a range of services are zeroing in on specialty fields when they plan branding campaigns.

"You have patients, particularly in the specialty area, [who] are going to ask themselves where they want to go," says Susan Gevertz, hospital consultant at the Chandler Chicco Agency. "Hospitals have become infinitely more programmatic in terms of where they want to focus their efforts."

Fierce competition

The marketplace for hospitals has also become increasingly competitive. In New York, for instance, hospitals are facing their seventh straight year of financial losses, according to the Healthcare Association of New York State.

"Each [specialty] hospital has to increase its sophistication to compete with each other ... and leading regional hospitals," says Edelman SVP Don Hyman. "There's a lot more emphasis for hospitals to distinguish themselves through innovation and research."

HSS took advantage of sports-related news hooks to draw attention to its staff, which boasts two Olympic-team physicians. "We spoke to a number of news organizations about whether someone would like to have a physician's diary of the Olympics," Sale recalls, adding that the PR team ultimately placed the daily diary with the Greenwich (CT) Time.

Sports-themed ideas abound over the summer in New York. HSS was able to successfully tie its expertise to the baseball season (a New York Mets physician is on staff), as well as the US Open tennis tournament in Queens. The hospital is currently gearing up for the winter Olympics in 2006.

Hyman, who led the account for Edelman, notes that reporters are looking for new solutions to age-old problems, or age-old solutions to new problems.

"Of course [the campaign is about] the wonderful doctors," he says. "But the news media we deal with have very specific needs. We tie our innovations into larger social trends."

Hyman recalls pitching stories of how aging baby boomers have increased the number of knee and hip replacement procedures being performed. And when Merck recalled its arthritis drug Vioxx, "we quickly went into action and made their doctors available to talk about what would happen next," he says.

At HSS, the branding campaign increased volume by 10% at the medical center, says Sale.

Gevertz notes that hospitals used to turn to agencies almost exclusively for issues management and to get their physicians quoted in the media. Now firms are brought in to develop strategic communications programs.

Most outreach efforts have a "triple, parallel track," she says, targeting patients, physicians, and health insurers. In the past, hospitals might have dismissed direct-to-consumer outreach because most patients went wherever their doctors referred them, she adds.

But a number of well-known hospital rankings, most of which are easily accessible online, have been both a boon and a challenge for medical centers.

The Department of Health and Human Services this year released a hospital comparison website, which has been widely used, Gevertz notes. And report cards are also available from such wide-ranging sources as nonprofit group Leapfrog, state health departments, and titles like US News & World Report.

The cardiology program at Lehigh Valley Hospital and Health Network is consistently ranked at the head of the pack, often beating out hospitals in the more urban areas of New York and Philadelphia. When a New York resident, through internet research, chose Lehigh Valley for his heart procedure, the PR team incorporated his story into its ongoing branding initiative, which uses patient experiences to tell a story about the hospital's excellence.

"Some people think it's better to put the bullet points out there," says Carol Biscontini, SVP of marketing and public affairs. But, she notes, "This is healthcare; we feel very strongly that it's [about] people and patients."

Mark Holtz, director of operations at Lehigh Valley, notes that, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the medical center had welcomed competition to help manage an overflow of patients.

These days, it doesn't take its market dominance for granted.

Patients, he says, are increasingly "facile" with internet resources, and the more specialized the procedure, the more likely they are to shop around before selecting a hospital.

He cites cardiology, neurology, bariatric surgery, and obstetrics as fields about which patients are most educated - and where Lehigh Valley has focused its branding efforts.

Power to the patient

Hospital experts note that campaigns must also reflect the greater empowerment that patients have.

Miki Young, SVP and senior strategist at LevLane, notes that most hospitals have continued to talk more about themselves and less about what they can offer to patients. She adds, for instance, that hospital websites are often the last place patients turn to for information.

"Most hospitals are still saying, 'This is what we have. Come use us,'" she says. "The consumer market really wants healthcare providers to provide them with information [that they can use]."

In June, Philadelphia's Hahnemann University Hospital, part of the national Tenet Healthcare Corp., undertook a "Rate Your Risk" campaign to drive patients to the hospital's website. The web-based tools allow patients to assess their risk for heart disease or cancer.

"We're really trying to convey whose health it is," Young says. "Part of what we offer is providing you with the information so you can make the decisions."

The campaign, which is aimed at baby boomers, also has the benefit of promoting the growing field of diagnostics. Technology now enables minimally invasive heart procedures, which can be done during an outpatient visit.

"We'd been fairly quiet on the ad front," says Laurie Durkin, Hahnemann's business development officer. "We won't outspend our competitors. I'm not even sure outspending would get us the recognition that we want."

LevLane promoted the campaign through press releases on summertime heart health risks, PSAs featuring the hospitals' physicians, and a partnership with the local NBC affiliate.
Within five months, 14,000 people visited Hahnemann's website, and traffic increased by 50%. Part of its appeal, Durkin notes, is that it offered action steps to patients.

"It wasn't self-serving, but truly trying to engage people," she says.

Even smaller hospitals can emphasize specialty expertise by sharing staff and resources with larger teaching hospitals, says Lisa Packer, founder and principal of Robinson Packer.

"Smaller institutions are looking to find ways to make themselves partners with larger institutions," she says. "Competition has really delivered this change. They have to be in a position where they can have a revenue stream."

But she notes that PR departments at smaller hospitals are often lightly staffed. "There needs to be a significant investment in the communications arm in order to have an impact on the bottom line," she says.

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