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If you work in healthcare marketing, we don’t have to tell you that healthcare as an industry is in an unprecedented state of rapid flux. Numerous factors are driving this. The key ones include:
These levers of change bring new challenges — and fresh opportunities — for healthcare companies.
In the midst of this, healthcare marketers are challenged as never before to bring innovative healthcare marketing ideas to the table. The definition of healthcare marketing is changing, and your organization’s strategy needs to reflect that.
This, too, represents a change in the status quo. Until recently, healthcare marketers didn’t face as much pressure as their peers in other sectors to pursue the most cutting-edge healthcare branding and marketing strategies.
Today, though, even long-established healthcare companies may find themselves scrambling to find sure footing and defend or redefine their role in the continuum of healthcare. But the good news is that forward-thinking healthcare businesses of all stripes are now in a position to identify new and exciting pathways for growth.
Whether your organization is currently defending its position or aggressively pursuing growth, as a healthcare marketer you have an important role to play in successfully maneuvering through this turbulent new landscape.
This Healthcare Marketing Handbook is your guide to understanding the most common branding and marketing challenges that healthcare marketers must grapple with. The Handbook is broken out by hospital groups and independent physician associations (IPAs) to reflect the similarities and key differences that businesses across the sector must contend with.
Reading the complete guide will give a sense for the marketing challenges facing healthcare as a broader sector. Or you can navigate to your specific industry’s section for a deeper dive into the healthcare marketing issues that are unique to your situation.
Total Number of U.S. Hospitals as of 2020: 6,146
Today’s hospital groups must operate in a rapidly changing landscape. Many are joining forces to consolidate market share and expand their geographic reach. Smaller groups and independent community hospitals are struggling to attract the best physicians or modernize with the most up-do-date medical equipment and procedures. The following key points must be kept top-of-mind in any discussion of healthcare marketing for hospital groups.
Hospital groups have several distinct audiences that they must engage with in unique ways. These include:
Your hospital group’s marketing strategy (and the messaging that flows from it) must be sensitively tailored for each of these key audiences.
What is your hospital group’s big-picture purpose, vision, and mission? If the answer doesn’t roll off your tongue, your team has work to do.
Purpose, vision, and mission are key foundational elements that should be used to build your unique organizational culture. Ideally, these elements should be defined as a precursor to building your hospital group’s brand. It doesn’t always necessarily happen in this order, but it’s best when it does. If you don’t establish what’s driving your hospital group in these areas, your branding will ring false. Not only that, but your business strategy will lack the rudder needed to steer your organization purposefully.
Purpose, vision, and mission are defined as follows:
In order for your purpose, vision, and mission statements to be key drivers in your healthcare brand strategy and internal culture, they must be:
Recruiting is fast becoming a major issue for both hospital groups and independent physician associations due to an increasing national shortage of physicians in the U.S.
Of course, physicians are central to hospital groups’ business models. This means that hospital groups must compete to fill their hospitals with doctors despite the fact that they don’t actually employ the majority of them. In fact, as of 2016, hospitals were responsible for employing only 32 percent of physicians (with 25 percent belonging to groups owned in full or in part by hospitals and seven percent employed directly by hospitals).
Hospital groups have two challenges related to recruiting doctors:
From a marketing perspective, recruitment challenges should be addressed with internal branding. Hospital groups need to be clear about what they offer in terms of workplace culture or benefits and what makes them different (for example, diversity).
Once a hospital group’s recruitment-related messaging is in place, it must then seek the most innovative healthcare marketing tactics to reach newly graduated residents and physicians. Historically, this has been handled with job fairs and job ads. Today, hospital groups have the opportunity to leverage more sophisticated techniques, including search engine optimization, targeted ads, and social media marketing.
Megamergers represent the first type of deal. These are mergers between two large hospital groups seeking to consolidate power. Megamerger deals typically represent billions of dollars in combined value.
The second deal type is the acquisition of smaller hospitals by larger hospital groups. Hospitals operate on razor-thin margins. As a result, smaller hospitals and hospital groups often struggle to modernize with the most advanced technologies. Larger groups seeking to expand their territory acquire these smaller groups and bring them up to speed in the process.
From a healthcare marketing perspective, M&A presents a number of challenges. The first order of business is to make a strategically sound decision around what the newly combined entity will be called and how it will be branded.
Certainly, if one of the two entities has a less-than-desirable reputation, rebranding is the best way to reset the corporate narrative and improve the hospital’s reputation. This may mean assuming the other entity’s brand or coming up with a new one altogether. If a less-than-stellar reputation isn’t part of the equation, the branding question becomes more nuanced. You may want to rebrand as a way to underscore the newly combined entity’s fresh energy and expanded offerings. This approach allows you to tell a unique story and highlight the change that is occurring. At the same time, hospitals with reputations for excellence will want to tread carefully when it comes to relinquishing any of their hard-earned brand equity.
Needless to say, your course of action in an M&A should be highly customized. Perhaps most importantly, it should be informed by a well-constructed strategy that maps to the overall business goals of the M&A itself. What drove the decision to integrate in the first place? Branding is the vehicle by which you translate those concrete goals into a corporate narrative that resonates with your key audiences.
You’ll want to make sure that you clearly communicate your brand externally to avoid confusing your market. Consumer decisions around healthcare are already fraught with confusion and anxiety. It’s not just about whether patients can expect to receive the best care. It’s about how much it will cost and whether their insurance plans will cover the treatment they need. (Is this hospital in network? What about the physician I’m seeing there?) The last thing you want is to add to the confusion by neglecting to clearly communicate any brand changes to your market.
Clearly communicating your healthcare brand isn’t just an external activity. It’s internal, too. You need to make sure that your entire staff clearly understands your brand, brand pillars, and brand promise. And this effort should go beyond brand governance as it relates to your marketing activities.
Remember: Clearly communicating your newly integrated hospital group’s branding has very real operational implications. Your brand carries a promise that must be supported operationally or else it will ring empty. Especially if you are overhauling your hospital’s image, you must make sure that the vision your branding team paints can be supported by your operational teams. For example, if your brand puts a high premium on customer service, seek to find ways to operationally bring that promise to life. It’s not enough to just expect your staff to be friendly.
Internal messaging around an M&A is also key in terms of bridging the two entities culturally. If that doesn’t happen, your staff won’t be prepared to deliver on your brand promise.
Your internal branding should:
Whatever route you take, M&A offers a unique opportunity to more closely scrutinize your healthcare brand and adjust strategically. Use this opportunity wisely, and you’ll emerge with a strong and vital brand platform that sets up your integrated hospital group for success.
Hospital groups need brand architecture as much as any other business. But many hospital groups struggle to identify and preserve a comprehensive brand architecture.
Brand architecture refers to the way your brand is structured. Specifically, it is an integrated system that includes everything from naming to a brand’s visual language. Taken together, a company’s brand architecture should clearly define who they are and what they do. It should also create cohesive relationships between all of a business’s products and services and help consumers understand how they are configured. Businesses with a strong brand architecture are better able to communicate their core offerings and unique value proposition to their customers.
Hospital groups struggle with brand architecture because of they way they are structured. By definition, hospital groups are comprised of multiple facilities that may provide a broad range of services. In many cases, hospital groups grow in an ad-hoc manner, with each new facility carrying its own unique name, perhaps due to an acquisition or major donation.
From a branding perspective, however, you need to communicate that your hospital group is more than a loose collection of facilities that happen to be gathered together under one figurative (and perhaps literal) roof. You must figure out how to structure your hospital group’s brand architecture in a way that communicates a cohesive corporate narrative and communicates your wider capability.
To start, you will want to create a taxonomy of the facilities that comprise your hospital group and define how they relate to your main brand. Next, you’ll want to consider how best to present this constellation of distinct business units to the marketplace. For example, do you want to be seen as a collection of specialty brands? Or a single brand with multiple sub units that all clearly bear the imprint of the parent brand?
Don’t forget that the more you can streamline your brand architecture, the easier it will be to manage. It’s much more challenging to manage brand governance and reputation across three or four distinct brands than it is to do the same for one.
In many ways, brand architecture lays the foundation for the rest of your healthcare marketing efforts. Of course, the decisions you make around brand architecture aren’t one size fits all. They should be research-driven and purposeful, customized to meet the unique needs of your hospital group and the market it serves.
It would be almost impossible to overstate the importance of reputation for hospital groups. Indeed, a negative regional or national reputation can have devastating effects on a hospital group’s bottom line. A carefully nurtured reputation, on the other hand, helps hospitals attract patients, physicians, donors, and referrals from doctors and specialists.
The importance of reputation has to do with how difficult it is for hospital groups to differentiate themselves from their competition. Unless a hospital group cultivates a distinct specialization, it may be almost indistinguishable from the competition, practically speaking.
Even when there’s a gap between a hospital’s actual performance and its reputation, the hospital’s reputation will typically prevail in terms of driving business.
If your hospital group is seeking to raise its regional or national profile, you must first take stock of your existing reputation. That typically means conducting surveys and other market research to understand what your key audiences (including patients, locals, staff, and referring physicians) have to say about your hospital group.
As you might expect, if your reputation is generally fairly positive, your work will be easier. In the case of many hospitals, the first step may be to simply clarify your brand positioning and strategy. In order to do this, you should identify one or more meaningful points of differentiation or distinction and build your brand around those strengths.
If, on the other hand, your hospital group’s reputation is damaged, you’ll need to consider a more drastic shift, whether that’s rebranding or M&A. If your reputational damage is due to real (rather than perceived) shortcomings in your hospital group’s delivery of care, then you must first address the root causes of the problem first. No amount of branding can fix a poor safety record that hasn’t been remedied.
Whether your hospital group is burnishing an exemplary reputation or doing damage control, it’s important to remember that reputation is something that can and should be improved upon over time.
As we already discussed, hospital groups must be proactive when it comes to managing their reputation. Branding is the cornerstone of this effort. And branding is built around a hospital group’s unique offerings, brand promise — plus points of distinction or differentiation.
Without points of distinction, your hospital group’s corporate narrative will almost certainly fall flat. This is especially true given that many hospital groups are so similar in terms of their facilities and medical offerings. Unless your hospital group has a very obvious point of differentiation, such as an area of specialization, you will need to be strategic in identifying your own points of distinction on which to build your branding and marketing strategies.
Typically, hospital groups find their point(s) of differentiation in one or more of the following areas:
Some hospitals find that their point of differentiation is more of a subtlety than a major point of distinction. That’s fine as long as it is:
Once you’ve identified your points of distinction, the next step is to make sure that your branding marketing materials communicate them effectively.
Much like Yelp reviews for restaurants, patient satisfaction rankings for hospital groups have a measurable impact on whether or not — and how many — new patients will venture through the doors. Keep in mind that your patients are your primary customers. But your customer base isn’t limited to patients. It also includes patients’ families and other visitors.
Customer satisfaction rankings tend to reflect more on the overall customer experience than the quality of medical care as measured by clinical outcomes or other factors. From the perspective of patients and their families, quality of care and customer experience are the touchpoints that make the biggest impact. Even if health outcomes are satisfactory, a negative customer service experience may leave a more lasting overall impression (and inspire a bad review).
Consider this: The U.S. News and World Report produces an annual list of the best hospitals in the nation based on a number of performance and staffing measures. But as of 2018, Yelp customer reviews for the top twenty hospitals identified by the U.S. News and World Report averaged just 3.2 out of five stars. Not only that, but nearly 63% of reviewers ranked the hospitals between one and three stars.
Some hospital groups make the mistake of thinking that excellence in the delivery of healthcare is the same thing as excellent customer service. Hospital groups should make positive health outcomes their number one goal. But they also need to provide a stellar customer experience that delivers on their brand promises at every turn. As a healthcare marketer, you already know that you don’t have much control over this operational aspect of a patient’s experience. Yet the success of your job depends on its being done well. That’s tough. But it serves as a good reminder that marketing and operations must be in sync in order for both to be successful.
In order to increase patient satisfaction rankings, hospital groups must create a wraparound branded experience in which every touchpoint reflects and reinforces the overall brand. Note that this implies that your branding is already in good shape. If not, start there first. Many of the most important customer touchpoints are outside of the healthcare services that form the hospital group’s core offerings. Non-medical touchpoints include:
Perception studies can also help your hospital group gain a solid understanding of how your facilities are currently perceived. These can be structured a number of different ways. For example, you might create an incentivized mobile survey and send it to a purchased list of targeted contacts. However you structure them, perception studies should capture feedback around how exactly your market perceives your brand, including both positive and negative attributes. Positive feedback may form the basis of a new point of distinction (or support an existing one). Negative feedback, meanwhile, should be taken seriously and used to guide decisions about what to improve.
Perception studies should ideally be conducted annually unless your customer satisfaction rankings are poor. If that’s the case, you may want to conduct them on a biannual or quarterly basis as you implement changes to see how they are resonating in the marketplace.
The process of improving your hospital group’s customer satisfaction rankings will require a holistic strategic plan that touches on all of your facilities and includes both marketing and operational elements. If you are working to undo a damaged reputation because of less-than-stellar health outcomes, then you must use data to prove that you’ve corrected the issue. And if your reputational damage is too great, then a rebrand or M&A may be in order.
As we’ve already established, your hospital group’s customer experience is critical to the success of your business. It’s not enough to provide world-class medical care. You must also make patients and their families feel welcome and cared for in a way that fosters an emotional connection to your brand.
If your customer experience is poor, it will almost certainly translate into negative customer satisfaction rankings. That’s true even if your hospital delivers above-average patient outcomes by every other measure.
You may be tempted to begin the process of improving your customer experience by focusing on operational changes. But that would be putting the cart before the horse. Your hospital group’s customer experience must begin with branding.
Ask yourself: What do you want your hospital group to be known for, and how will you share that message? Does your existing brand still make sense? If the answer is yes, you must ask how you can bring your customer experience in alignment with your brand. If the answer is no, then it’s time to refresh your brand before tackling any customer experience problems you might have.
Next, you’ll need to clarify the connections between your brand and the customer experience you hope to provide. Keep in mind that customer experience includes everything from pulling into your facility’s parking lot to a customer’s interaction with the billing department and all that happens in between. Your goal is not only to provide excellent customer service, but to link that superior experience to your brand specifically. The more branded your customer experience is, the more your customers will connect with it.
Once you’ve mapped out the ways your customer experience will reinforce your brand, it’s time to implement changes at the operational level. This could include anything from improving wayfinding signage to increasing the ratio of support staff to injecting branded elements into your facility’s physical environments.
Don’t forget that your hospital group’s customer experience extends beyond just your patients and their families. It also encompasses the experience of your physicians and other staff, too. Be sure to consider your internal branding as it extends to this important aspect of customer experience. That goes double if recruitment is a concern.
Finally, remember that you can benchmark and measure your hospital group’s customer experience using tools like quarterly surveys and “blind shoppers.”
The way doctors structure their businesses has changed over the years. In the past, independently owned private practices were the norm. In this setup, individual doctors (or small groups of physicians sharing an office) functioned as fully independent business entities, handling all of their own overhead, administrative tasks, and payer relationships. Over time, increasing administrative requirements and legislation like the Affordable Care Act shifted the playing field. In response, many physicians opted out of private practices in favor of direct employment by hospital groups. This move shielded doctors from risk and economic instability, but it also reduced their level of independence.
Today though, more and more physicians are choosing a third model: Independent physician associations (IPAs). IPAs are networks of physicians and small medical groups that join together under a broader corporate umbrella. IPAs can take varying forms, but physicians in these groups usually retain independence in their practices. The typical role of the IPA is to negotiate contracts with hospital groups and payers, find ways to streamline administrative costs, and coordinate the delivery of care across specializations. No one knows for certain how many physicians belong to IPAs across the country, but we can get a sense of the volume from the IPA Association of America (TIPAAA), which represents over 300,000 physicians nationwide that belong to independent physician associations.
IPAs afford physicians a number of benefits, including:
Like hospital groups, IPAs must contend with the rapidly shifting conditions in the healthcare sector at large. But the following factors are particularly relevant to healthcare marketing for IPAs:
Independent Physician Associations (IPAs) must engage several distinct audiences in their marketing. These include:
Your IPA’s marketing strategy must be tailored to each of the above audiences to be effective.
Your independent physician association must have a clearly defined purpose, vision, and mission underlying your corporate culture. If not, your IPA will be no more than a collection of loosely related physicians and medical groups. What you really want? A unified entity with a distinctive corporate narrative, an aligned culture, and a shared set of goals. Defining your purpose, vision, and mission is the first step toward that achievable goal.
Your purpose, vision, and mission should be clearly linked to your branding. In fact, it’s advisable to define these key elements before working on your brand and healthcare brand strategy.
In this context, purpose, vision, and mission aren’t vague terms that can be interchangeably thrown around. Each element has a distinct meaning and unique objective:
You must approach the process of defining these elements with care. Your purpose, vision, and mission statements are most likely to be effective if they are:
Independent physician organizations must find a way to differentiate themselves from the pack if they want to grow their businesses. The reality is that you may be operationally prepared to expand your IPA’s market share, but if you can’t tell a compelling story about what makes your IPA different, you will almost certainly struggle to realize your goals. This differentiating process is the responsibility of positioning, which plays out in both your branding and marketing strategies.
For many IPAs, the initial step may be to identify what their positioning is for the first time. Hopefully, you’ve already worked out your purpose, vision, and mission statements. If so, you may already have a strong sense of what your IPA’s positioning should be.
If not, you should start by thinking about what sets your IPA apart from your competitors. You’re looking for points of excellence or factors that allow you to meet your region’s healthcare needs in a unique manner. These differentiating factors may have to do with the types of care your physicians provide, the breadth of your geographic coverage, or with something about the way your physicians approach the delivery of care.
Often, an IPA’s positioning may pull from more than one of these categories. For example, an IPA may position itself as offering the best emergency care physicians in a given area, and it may also emphasize the IPA’s commitment to exceptionally compassionate care in an emergency setting. Another IPA might position itself as offering comprehensive care (representing a broad spectrum of specializations) and highlight its ability to offer especially cooperative and integrated care as a result of its particular mix of physicians.
Like your purpose, vision, and mission statements, your unique positioning must be authentic, meaningful, representative of your core values, and understood by every member of your IPA. If not, it will fall flat.
Finally, once you’ve identified your IPA’s positioning, your branding and healthcare marketing must be structured to reflect and promote it. When done well, your positioning is the cornerstone of your efforts to connect meaningfully with your key marketing audiences and successfully grow your business.
Independent physician associations wouldn’t exist without physicians. Almost without exception, IPAs benefit from recruiting additional doctors and medical groups to their associations. For IPAs, expanding the network of physicians often means:
Recruiting is competitive with other IPAs and even some hospital groups going after the same talent. In some instances, you may also be competing with a physician’s own desire to maintain an unaffiliated, independent private practice. Recruitment is likely to become even more of a challenge moving forward as the U.S. grapples with a growing shortage of doctors.
Your IPA’s internal branding is your greatest asset when it comes to recruitment. Internal branding relates to your corporate culture, the benefits of becoming a physician member, and what makes your IPA different from the rest. Your differentiating factors might include your billing services, key contracts with hospital groups, and the like.
Next, you should harness the most innovative healthcare marketing tactics to communicate your internal branding to physicians, independent medical groups, and residents. This should include everything from your website design and content strategy to other digital marketing methods, like SEO and targeted social media advertising.
Independent physician associations that want to expand their network of physicians and increase their share of market with hospital groups and insurance companies must go beyond old-school sales and marketing techniques to get there. They must seek out more sophisticated healthcare marketing techniques to draw physicians, hospital groups, and insurance companies closer to their brand. One of the most effective ways to do this is to establish your IPA as a thought leader using content marketing.
This means regularly producing and promoting relevant, timely, expert thought leadership; publishing it to your IPA’s website; and promoting that content on social media channels and in your email marketing. This thought leadership content can take a number of forms, including:
There are best practices associated with each content type, including prescriptions for word count (if the content is text-based) and how frequently you should produce it. You’ll want to think carefully about choosing the right mix of content types for your IPA to yield the greatest marketing benefit while also making a plan that’s sustainable in terms of the effort required to create and promote your content.
Regardless of the format, your content must provide value. This means that your content should inform your key marketing audiences on issues that matter to them and that also relates to your IPA’s area(s) of expertise.
The thought leadership content you produce can benefit your IPA in a number of ways:
Whether you work with a hospital group, an IPA, or another business in the healthcare sector, the only successful way to approach healthcare marketing is with an understanding of the big-picture trends and challenges that all businesses in the industry now face. With increased turbulence and disruption comes increased competition, too.
In order to defend your organization’s market share — and position it for growth — you must pursue the most innovative healthcare marketing strategies. By following the advice laid out in this guide, you can be sure to do just that.
Take the lead with your organization’s healthcare marketing. We can help. Send us a message or call us at +1 949 273 6330.