Should Health-Care Systems Advertise?

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 quality.
  • “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Among other reactions, I personally find the writer’s viewpoint to be narrow and outdated.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 needle. 

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.

2 comments about "Should Health-Care Systems Advertise?".
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  1. Leslie Nolen from The Radial Group, October 3, 2014 at 9:30 p.m.

    Your response seems disingenuous. Most of the examples you give aren't what most of us envision when we say "advertising" and I daresay aren't what the Wharton blogger meant either.

    I'm thinking of the endless billboards in the DFW area that promote minimally invasive surgery, DaVinci equipment, gamma knife equipment, etc. These ADS usually consist of nothing more than a stock photograph and a very brief slogan, plus the health system and logo, of course.

    These ads always strongly insinuate that these devices and procedures are universally beneficial and preferable to other options. They don't contribute to public health in any way. If anything, they increase the risk of harm.

    At least the hospital billboards that tout Leapfrog and similar ratings have *something* to do with quality of care.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 8, 2014 at 5:19 p.m.

    What is more complicated for the individual and more scary than anything in the health, that is illness, field ? Ditto for what Leslie Nolen wrote. All of those ads are confusing and royally screw health services which cannot afford all of the advertising which has increased disproportionately to other expenses passed onto the consumers big time and gouges insurances companies for hefty profiteers. (I just saw a bill from a doctor I used for a concocted charge and this was not the first time I saw something I could recognize and understand on a medical bill. It happens all the time.)

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