This Sounds Like a Job For Marketing...Or Maybe Not!
When you are in the business of hospital marketing, your administration will often look to your department to solve problems relating to patient volume for just about any service line. This is especially true in larger, multi-hospital systems. While it is nice that administrations have faith in your ability to influence patients, unfortunately, the truth is you will often be called on to solve problems that marketing has very little ability to impact. Before developing or updating your marketing strategy in reaction to your CEO’s latest “urgent issue”, you should do some detective work and find out if you are actually being asked to fix one of these issues:
Physician Referral Issues
Very few service lines are truly consumer facing, meaning the consumer selects the hospital for a procedure prior to selecting a physician. More often, a patient will have a concerning issue or a symptom, and they make an appointment with either their primary care physician or a specialist. As of that moment, they are on track to have tests and treatments done at your hospital or at your competition. It is nearly impossible for all of the consumer-facing marketing in the word to overcome a trusted physician saying, “I think you should go here to have this test done,” or “I prefer to do that procedure at this hospital.”
If your administration has noticed a decrease in your patient volume, the first place the hospital should look is at your physician referral pipeline. Maybe there is a large volume primary care physician who had a fight with one of your primary cardiologists and is now referring patients to a competitor. Perhaps one of your heavily referring obstetricians went on maternity leave and only returned part time. These types of situations will significantly impact your patient volume, but it isn’t anything your marketing efforts can fix on their own.
Operational and Staffing Issues
The best marketing in the world can’t make up for an unreasonably long wait for a test or a procedure. No television ad for an oncology program will get patients in the door if you don’t have a simple, efficient patient intake process. A great online search marketing strategy for your cardiac program won’t do you any good if it doesn’t direct those potential patients to a physician who can see them quickly and is going to refer them further into your service line.
If you are in a multi-hospital network, do the service lines at each hospital cooperate for the greater success of the network, or are they each competing with each other? If they are competing, they will effectively negate your marketing efforts. Does it seem to take all day for a patient to get through your pre-admission testing process because you are understaffed? That impression will spread throughout your community of both patients and physicians, and they will start going elsewhere despite your best marketing efforts.
If any of these sound like problems you might have, you need to work with your service line directors and operational managers to see that these problems are corrected before you make a huge investment into a new marketing effort. Otherwise you will be wasting time, money and your credibility.
How do you tell if your problem is one marketing can fix, and more importantly, how do you convince your CEO and Chief of Staff that the problem they are asking you to fix isn’t really with marketing? Look at your data. Your hospital will have the data to identify any problems in your physician referral stream. Find the people in your organization who manage that data and work with them to find the underlying cause to the change in your patient volume.
If you suspect an operational problem you need to look for soft data. Talk to your floor nurses, call center employees and lab technicians. They will be the first ones to hear patient complaints directly. Consider conducting a patient satisfaction survey or consumer impression survey that goes into more detail than the typical Press-Ganey survey. Finally, consider holding focus groups with both patients and non-patients. These can be expensive, but the depth of information they reveal can go a long way in identifying the root source of your marketing challenge.
Why is marketing so often asked to solve problems that really fall into these areas? I think it is because it is the easier path to take. It is easy to budget money for a television commercial touting the excellence of your cardiac program. It is easy to run a series of ads in your local newspaper announcing your new orthopedic surgeon. It is easy to promote your new linear accelerator. It is really hard to get the competing interests of your physicians, your facility managers, and your service line directors to align to address your root problems. How would you handle these issues, or how have you handled them in the past? We’d love to hear your healthcare marketing stories!