A hidden medical issue reared its head in October, sending us from primary care doctor to multiple specialists, then to hospital admission and surgery.
It occurred to me afterward that at the point of handoff by the general practitioner, our medical path was pretty much set by virtue of the health care network in which the specialists worked.
Sure, we could have balked along the way, insisting on treatment at a particular hospital, by a provider praised by aunt Millie or cousin Archie. But the doctors who passed us along were so competent and assured that we didn’t feel the need.
All of which made me wonder about the point of the hospital ads — on television, in newspapers, on billboards — that seemed to be everywhere at the time.
Such advertising is big business: For the first six months of 2011, American hospitals, clinics and medical centers spent $717 million on advertising, according to data cited by the New York Times.
Closer to home, the latest Form 990 financial reports from local hospitals, also for 2011, show healthy expenditures on the line denoted as “advertising and promotion”: $2.5 million at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany; $1.76 million at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady; $874,800 at St. Mary’s Healthcare in Amsterdam; and $618,500 at Saratoga Hospital in Saratoga Springs. (Nonprofits, such as hospitals, are required to file the 990 reports annually with the Internal Revenue Service to maintain their tax-exempt status.)
I collected a stack of hospital ads from the past month or so from local newspapers that carried varied messages: industry recognition for performance (St. Mary’s in orthopedics, Saratoga Hospital in spine surgery, St. Peter’s in cardiac care); patient-centered information (where Ellis has blood-draw stations; where St. Peter’s has medical imaging centers); and one that welcomed a new physician put in charge of a new offering (Saratoga’s bariatric surgery and weight-loss program).
Ads from St. Peter’s reminded people that its merger two years ago with Northeast Health and Seton Health System, both in Troy, created the far-flung St. Peter’s Health Partners. An ad from Ellis offered a link to the first-person patient stories that were part of an award-winning rebranding campaign that followed an earlier multiple-hospital merger.
Smith & Jones, a Troy firm specializing in health care marketing, was behind that campaign. In newsletters and other materials, it stresses to client hospitals and provider networks the importance of building a strong and consistent brand, since the “monopoly on consumer choice” they once enjoyed is gone.
“Until recently, it wasn’t necessary to advertise health-care services,” Mark Shipley, the firm’s president and chief strategic officer, noted in one newsletter. But today, with consumers questioning costs and many more walk-in and free-standing clinics competing for business, “hospitals are now forced to brand and market their services to retain even their local consumers’ care spending.”
Consumers now purchase health care “similar to the way they purchase other things,” Shipley told me this week, by researching options and shopping around before making a choice — unlike the handoff we accepted. “One of the functions of branding and advertising is building awareness,” he said.
Providers that have built a reputation around care offered in a particular area — cancer, maternity, stroke — will have an advantage over equally competent programs that lack the same awareness among consumers.
“If they don’t advertise and try to compete for the patients out there,” Shipley said of hospitals, “the patient will go elsewhere.”
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.