Solving the health system brand dilemma

April 19, 2010

The past few years have seen significant consolidation in the health care industry in the US. Driven in large part by the changing dynamics of the marketplace, hospitals are merging and regional health systems are emerging — raising some intriguing issues about the role that brands play in our national health care system.

Branding and communications for a regional healthcare system is a complex and layered challenge.  Non-profit hospital systems exist at a nexus between patients and consumers, physicians and payers, employers and employees, local communities and government, advocates and donors. The objectives and allegiances across each of these groups can frequently be at odds.

As health systems grow larger in scale and in scope, marketers and administrators increasingly find themselves uncertain about how they communicate who they are and how all the pieces fit together.

Local vs. system-wide communications

The paths by which a patient comes to use or align himself with a given hospital range from local ER visits to physician referrals to personal referrals to options within managed care networks. Yet consumerism is increasingly a factor in healthcare decision-making, as consumers have become more and more comfortable seeing advertising and marketing messages from providers across the health care spectrum.

“All healthcare decisions are local” is a mantra we hear often. Having worked with a number of regional systems, we know that in practice this is never quite so simple. Systems are recognizing the need to efficiently build brand loyalty on a larger scale — but differences in capabilities or quality or approach or expertise among the different components of a health network can make it difficult create that single resonant message that speaks to all audiences.

Yes, many healthcare decisions are local — yet there is a constant need for the system to leverage those local decisions and to communicate its value across other services and capabilities. The local or the legacy brand may be just the first step to a deeper, emotional bond — yet the consumer needs to understand the benefits of the broader system and what it means for them.  Ultimately, the solution resides in a brand strategy that defines a role for both the system brand and the local affiliate brand — with each component delivering a portion of the required message and emotional connection.

There are many valuable trends in healthcare from wellness to collaboration and patient-centered care to electronic health records. What do patients and consumers care about? At the top of their list, they care about safety and outcomes. Affordability, not surprisingly, is a huge factor in their choice of health plans, as well.

Two of the dominant patient concerns that we have seen in our research relate to personalized care and inclusion in the decision-making process. Nursing care is also cited as a very important to the overall patient experience.  On the flipside, patient frustration in health care stems from not knowing where they are in a process and how to navigate bureaucracy.

Patients and consumers have inherent perceived value for networks of care, as indicated by our research. They assume benefits such as sharing of best practices, access to more services, lowering of costs, etc. While there are small segments of the population that have some cynicism of the “corporate takeover” variety, expectations of “system-ness” are mostly optimistic.

Hospital systems have an opportunity to build upon this innate belief among consumers.  If they can articulate the value of the system and the role of their affiliates in a way that is relevant and credible and delivers on their promise, these innate beliefs can be cemented. Further, providers that understand the patient concerns and can manage the patient relationships accordingly can bring the vision for a more ‘intelligent’ system to life.

In health care, just as in any other industry, a brand is a promise to perform in a predictable way. The inter-relationships of the brands in a health system need to be properly articulated for this promise to resonate with its audiences. When they are, when a cohesive communications system helps everyone from patients to doctors to donors understand how they benefit from a broader network affiliation, the result is a positive impact on market share and on patient satisfaction.

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