I was nearly speechless when I read a recent blog post
from Knowledge@Wharton, a business analysis journal from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, questioning whether health-care system advertising should be regulated or even banned.
Here are a few excerpts to give you a taste of the editorial flavor:
- “Advertising is really just about rearranging market share. I understand it’s a
business practice. But it’s not a professional practice. It’s not really about ensuring the health of the community.”
- “Furthermore, by
focusing some ads on ‘indirect benefits’ — think religious care offered, for example — they may be inappropriately deflecting attention away from questions of
- “The physician is clinically trained and should be able to interpret information that’s more nuanced. It’s not clear to me
that giving fine print to consumers is the way to go.”
Among other reactions, I personally find the writer’s viewpoint to be narrow and outdated. But it has made
me stop and question the various roles advertising plays and could play for health-care systems. Here’s a short list of objectives for real-life campaigns I’ve worked on for various
health-care system clients in recent years that I do believe add value to society, beyond to the system itself:
- For more than a dozen years, one client – which happens
to be one of the largest non-profit health-care systems in the country – has been running an advertising campaign themed “Thrive.” Its focus is to inspire and teach people how to
lead healthier and happier lives. The campaign has generated ample evidence of success, and its approach has been widely adopted throughout the country. The idea of inspiring people is
something that advertising seems far more capable of than many physicians I’ve met.
- Another client introduced a campaign for its cancer centers that encouraged
people to learn as much about a cancer diagnosis as they feel compelled to in other parts of their lives (i.e., is knowing the exact ingredients of a caramel macchiato all that important in the grand
scheme?). It was developed to counter the reality that many people are so afraid and overwhelmed by a cancer diagnosis that they often fail to talk to any other physicians (beyond the diagnosing
doctor) for a second opinion or even to ask basic questions about the condition. Trying to seed the idea of becoming a well-informed patient seems important to me.
- Several systems have undergone merger/acquisition and new location expansion activities, which have resulted in hospital name changes and network realignment, potential areas of confusion
for consumers. Using advertising as a tool to help patients understand these changes seems appropriate.
- Many providers have introduced advertising to educate their
patients about electronic medical records, which reduce human error, often saving patients time and frustration; result in better patient service; and can foster collaboration among physicians. While
perhaps not the most exciting of assignments, these communications seem to serve the common good.
- Other clients have advertised not just to reach potential patients,
but also to publicly connect with their employees. They’ve found that employee motivation, morale and pride can often be more effectively influenced by public messaging, rather than hallway
placards and conference room pep talks.
- A final example is admittedly more self-serving. The health-care system used advertising to overcome an incorrect belief held
by many local consumers: in this case, that the system “is a place only for those who are seriously ill.” The client is a take-all-comers public system that provides a full range of
health-care services, including primary care.
Each of these examples is a use of advertising I can defend with good conscience.
However, the Wharton piece
does raise one question that I’m not as quick to answer, regarding the use of advertising solely to build the brand and steal market share. It’s not that I don’t believe a
free-market system leads to more effective products and services for the audiences it serves. It’s more of a belief that to truly differentiate themselves and earn new customers, brands should
focus on and deliver real unique value. Brand advertising should amplify that value.
Most health-care system administrators today seem to adhere to the common-best-practice
model of shared techniques, protocols, technology, systems, and even imagery and language used in advertising. This tends to reinforce sameness rather than create uniqueness. Until this changes and
health-care systems become brave enough to provide new offerings that break the accepted (albeit low-satisfaction-generating) norm, advertising alone has very little chance of moving the brand-share
But rather than ban advertising, I’d encourage administrators to embrace thinking like contemporary marketers, who constantly challenge themselves to improve the
brand experience by investing in customer-centered, meaningful innovation. While inclusive of medical treatment, it recognizes that health-care innovation can take many forms.
Perhaps that innovation can become the basis for advertising that we all can feel good about, even if it does disrupt the market-share pie chart.