It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen next as the economy continues its snail’s pace recovery. But one thing is certain — industries are all facing an increasingly competitive environment, and hospitals are no exception.
Hospitals invest heavily in specialty programs, such as those in neurology, cardiology, spine and orthopedics, making it a priority to target patients requiring such services.
When we call an ambulance, it takes us to the nearest hospital. In nonemergency situations, however, patients choose their hospital. So hospitals must promote their programs to attract patients and gain recognition for their specialty service lines, healthcare marketing experts say.
Alabama hospitals are using a variety of marketing strategies to promote their specialties — from digital media and direct marketing to print and community service events. In addition, these campaigns must be cost effective, since many Alabama hospitals see flat or falling budgets for marketing and advertising.
At UAB Hospital, University of Alabama at Birmingham’s hospital, both traditional and nontraditional methods of advertising are used to educate consumers and physicians about the services. The teaching hospital has three specialties designated as “Blue Distinction Centers” by Blue Cross Blue Shield — bariatric surgery, complex and rare cancers and transplants.
Adrienne Steading, director of marketing and digital strategy, says marketing each specialty is based on the specific target audience, using a mix of TV, radio and print advertising, along with in-person seminars, webinars and search engine optimization. Going beyond search engine optimization with online marketing has been successful, and it is excellent for tracking return on investment, adds Steading.
The data collected from online marketing has allowed UAB Medicine, the administrative and marketing entity, to learn about its consumers, how best to meet their needs and develop ongoing relationships with them. Steading says online marketing is a cost-efficient way to reach specific audiences. The marketing budget remains flat from year to year, and every year new ways are sought to stretch marketing dollars.
“As we are an academic medical center, it is important that we provide access to care for those consumers whose treatment has been unsuccessful elsewhere and who are in need of a higher level of care, ” Steading explains. “Therefore, we are always looking for ways to educate the community about our services.”
The demographic landscape for each service is different, and Steading says they focus heavily on what predisposes an individual to a specific disease. Such factors include age, gender and genetics, as well as symptoms and lifestyle habits. “We often focus on women, as they are often the healthcare decision makers for immediate family members.”
Unless the service calls for a different demographic, DCH Health System in Tuscaloosa also aims its advertising toward women, because research shows they make the family’s health decisions, says Communication Director Brad Fisher. When DCH’s cardiology cardiac surgery program received a Blue Distinction by Blue Cross Blue Shield, TV, radio and print advertisement campaigns were created, which won several awards. DCH is using more digital advertising, especially on Facebook, for self-referral services, such as its spine care center and sleep clinics. And more focus on social media to encourage awareness and engagement.
Flagship services, such as cancer and cardiology, require a physician referral, says Fisher, making it difficult to “tie” a patient directly to advertising. “The effectiveness is based on increased awareness, preference and reputation ratings for the advertised service on our community survey, and we look at increased referrals over the long term.” Though Fisher is confident that marketing goals can be met, the budget for the current fiscal year is less than the year before because of cuts in federal reimbursement.
Marketing Manager Lauren Giddens, of Infirmary Health in Mobile, says a variety of media — TV, radio, print, outdoor, non-traditional and digital strategies — are used to advertise specialties. Infirmary Health also produces a magazine used to educate consumers about its services that is promoted through digital and traditional media.
“We select the medium that matches the demographics we are trying to reach based on each service line, ” Giddens says. “We have found that ad networks, specifically behavioral targeting, to be an effective tool. Through this medium, we are able to reach those individuals who are searching for a particular healthcare service within a specific geographic and demographic area.”
Because of the time people spend on their mobile devices, Giddens says they plan to attract more patients by using smart phone/geo-targeting advertising. Video vignettes, called Infirmary Insight videos, also are used to support their marketing initiatives. Marketing campaigns are tracked by measuring web and social media traffic and through call centers in their physician offices.
Sponsoring community events is a time-honored way to attract patients and educate the public about top specialties. Care Check (a national rating system) ranks Southeast Alabama Medical Center in Dothan in the top 10 percent nationwide for heart attack treatment and cardiac care. To serve the community and promote these services, a heart attack simulation drill was presented during halftime at a recent local high school football game. Miniature footballs printed with the signs and symptoms of a heart attack were given out.
Social media also is an important part of SAMC’s marketing arsenal. About 10 Tweets are posted daily to promote heart attack treatment and cardiac care. Radio and newspaper advertising also are used to increase patient volume in its 50-mile primary service area that includes Florida and Georgia.
Don Seymour, of Don Seymour & Associates in Massachusetts, which provides advice on leadership issues to hospitals throughout the United States, including Alabama, believes the best way for hospitals to promote their specialties is through primary care physicians and emergency departments. “In most cases, the battle is won or lost at the physician primary care level with referrals, ” says Seymour, past president of the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development. “We all know where we want a loved one to go, but we almost never argue with the physician.”
Targeting referring physicians is one way in which the 101-year-old Children’s of Alabama, in Birmingham, is marketing two new services – cardiovascular and kidney, liver and heart transplantation. Hospital spokesman Garland Stansell says because these services are new, there is some capacity to expand them. To promote these new specialties, Children’s of Alabama also is advertising in family-friendly publications, distributing brochures, as well as targeting pediatricians, cardiologists and colleagues in Alabama and nationwide.
Most of the specialties have waiting lists, so “We don’t have to spend a lot of revenue on driving patient volume, ” Stansell says. Being a sponsor at conferences of the American Academy of Pediatrics and other key organizations also is used for promotion. Children’s of Alabama is the site for UAB Medicine’s pediatric programs and patient care, and is the only free-standing pediatric hospital in Alabama.
Baptist Medical Center South, in Montgomery, is recognized as a Blue Distinction Center for cardiac care by Blue Cross Blue Shield. The hospital is part of Baptist Health, which operates two hospitals in Montgomery and one in Prattville. Baptist Medical Center East, in Montgomery, is on the Truven Health Analytics list of 100 Top Hospitals for 2013.
Baptist Health promotes the service lines that each of its hospitals is noted for, as well as promoting its health care system as a whole, says spokesman Tommy McKinnon. Baptist Health offers health screenings as a way to promote its hospitals and healthy living. A healthier community reduces the demand for expensive hospital care, says McKinnon.
Huntsville Hospital also uses health screenings to serve the community, build relationships and increase awareness of what the hospital has to offer. More than 150 health screening events were conducted in 2012 in its mobile medical unit.
Social media has changed the way Huntsville Hospital markets and communicates, but it hasn’t eliminated the need for a multi-media approach, says Burr Ingram, vice president of communications and marketing. Broadcast, print, direct mail and events are used, along with partnering with niche organizations to reach a targeted audience. Another strategy is simply patient word-of-mouth. The experience a patient has usually lasts longer than most media campaigns, Ingram says.
Doctor-patient relationships are used primarily at Riverview Regional Medical Center in Gadsden to promote nephrology, which is recognized as a high performing specialty at Riverview in US News Best Hospitals ranking. Marketing Director Marcy Gregerson has found that direct mail and outdoor boards are the most effective means to target an audience for their general service lines.
Gregerson says Facebook was highly successful for a nurse recruitment event that had limited funds for promotion. An advertisement button was created that popped up on Facebook geared toward their audiences’ searches. Click on job opportunities, for example, and you were taken to a recruitment information link. This allowed them to control costs by setting a budget, and when the number of clicks reached their budget they could either continue or pull it, and monitor the returns.
Kimberly Murray, executive vice president and COO of Pitts Management Associates, a healthcare consulting firm in Baton Rouge, La. with several Alabama hospitals as clients, says hospitals need to think competitively about how they approach all aspects of business. Murray says hospitals must market all of their strengths to increase patient visits and revenue, yet many have less money to do so today.
Rosemary Blackmon, executive vice president and COO for the Alabama Hospital Association, the only trade organization representing Alabama’s 120 hospitals, says as hospitals look at their revenue stream from reimbursement, and Medicare and Medicaid, they must scrutinize all their specialty service lines to determine that what they offer meets their community’s needs. “We are in the middle of huge reform in the Medicare system, ” Blackmon says, “and it’s uncertain how the outcome will affect hospitals.”
Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.
Text by Jessica Armstrong