Friday, October 23, 2015

Beyond the Billboards: Medical Marketing Can Help Patients Decide



It has certainly been an interesting year for me.  It started out with a phone call from my sister.  I thought something was terribly wrong because she was crying.  Instead she was calling to say how proud she was of me, having just passed a billboard featuring our heart surgery program at LVHN.

Fast forward a year later and my billboards are coming down as the hospital continues to highlight other physicians and topics.  Alas, my time on the side of the road, the mall, and the movies will soon fade.  But what to make of all of this marketing stuff?  Sure, it is nice to see your name and hospital proudly displayed, but what does it mean for patients in our community?
The fact is medical marketing is playing an increasingly important role in the decision making process for patients and their families.  As just one example, due to the ongoing healthcare reforms more and more patients are being faced with high-deductible health plans.  A concern is that this may lead to some patients delaying necessary care which in turn can adversely impact their health.  On the other hand, hopefully these patients will choose instead to simply do more research and be more selective of the care they need to receive.  Put differently, patients need to become more careful consumers.

Puman Anand Keller, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, published an article in Forbes in 2014 called “What marketing can do for hospitals.” Keller pointed out that hospitals are now facing the same world of transparency and competition that hotels and other service businesses have faced for years.  Just as a consumer may go to TripAdvisor to review a hotel, patients are scrutinizing hospital ads, going to their web sites, and searching doctors’ results in Consumer Reports, US News, Healthgrades, and a growing list of other sources.

Sam Kennedy of The Morning Call published a related article on July 16, “New websites rate surgeons.” What struck me about the Call article was that it was in the “Your Money” section of the newspaper. And yet, that is exactly the point. As Kennedy states, choosing a surgeon is one of the biggest decisions you can make and often patients (consumers) are not very well informed.  Websites such as look at Medicare data to determine mortality rates, complications, length of stay, readmissions, and costs. We should expect more of these websites to appear in the future.

No doubt all of this can still be very confusing for patients.  Most hospitals tout that they are “tops” in their field for certain procedures, based upon the many different report cards available to assess doctors and hospitals.  If a hospital gets an “A” grade on a particular report card, you can be sure you will see it in an ad. As a consumer you need to look beyond the billboards and do your own research to learn more about that rating and that hospital.

Way back in 1999, I saw some of this coming.  I was sitting across a retired couple, providing a second opinion for heart surgery. After an hour of what I thought was a very complete discussion, the gentleman asked me if I had a website!  Keep in mind 1999 is ancient for the Web.  Google only started in 1998, Facebook not until 2004 and Twitter in 2006.

I decided to take night classes at Penn State on web design and started my own website  It is a personal site that mixes everything from my training, surgical experience, types of operations, and most of all, my outcomes and my personal philosophy on patient care.  Sixteen years later my website gets many hits daily from all over the world and almost every new patient has found my personal website on the Internet.
Of course, when it is all said and done, the best advice is to stay healthy.  But if you do need guidance, think of yourself as an informed consumer, not only as a patient.  Do not rely on just one doctor’s recommendation or one source on the Internet.  Ask questions.  If able, ask for a second opinion.  Know your doctor’s results and what other patients think of that doctor’s bedside manners, responsiveness, and empathy.  You do have choices.  When it comes to your health and your healthcare, make good ones.