Marketing In A World Where Health Consumers Refuse To Be Treated Like Hamburgers

Last week, a post was published on the popular blog KevinMD written by Dr. Joel R. Cooper, a family physician. It was designed to serve as a wake-up call to patients about how time-pressed doctors really view them. 

He wrote: “[Physicians] have become the McDonald’s of health care [because they must process] the maximum number of patients [to drive revenue]. Patients, seen in this context, are hamburgers and doctors are line workers preparing the hamburgers.”

This, Dr. Cooper warns, is the consequence of decreasing reimbursement rates, declining numbers of primary care physicians and more patients entering the health system because of the Affordable Care Act. 

In this context, the strategy for marketing hospitals, physician practices, clinics and other centers of healthcare is about convincing patients that they’ll be treated like a person, rather than a piece of meat — at least in areas where there is competition for patients. 



But, one neighborhood at a time, a range of companies, many of them newcomers to healthcare, are working to change this dynamic. They are developing products and services that make it easier for patients to receive care in a less time, closer to home and without needing to see a physician in person. 

Let me explain what I mean by telling the fictional story of Sam, which is outlined in the illustrations below. 

As you can see today, Sam visits the doctor several times before he receives a diagnosis. As Dr. Cooper would say: hamburger cooked and served. 

Over time, because of companies like Wal-Mart, the medical testing firm Theranos and the digital pill manufacturer Proteus Digital Health, consumers will have more choice and flexibility in terms of how they receive health services. Specifically: 

  • Routine care will occur outside the hospital: Companies like Target, Walgreens and Wal-Mart are bringing care to the neighborhood with in-store clinics that offer many services that were previously primarily available in hospitals and traditional clinics. 
  • Tele-medicine will be the norm: According to a new PricewaterhouseCoopers study, 31% of physicians use mobile devices to communicate with patients. Half of health professionals believe 10% of in-person visits will be replaced in the future by mobile video consults. 
  • Diagnostic testing will get cheaper and faster: A number of companies (like Theranos) are developing tools that will enable people to eliminate the need to visit the hospital for blood tests and deliver results much faster using DNA analysis and other techniques.

As Sam’s story illustrates, in the near future, all of these technologies will come together to not only make certain types of care more convenient for patients, but much less expensive (especially testing). 

With these new tools and services at their disposal — especially if they are cheaper and more accessible — patients may increasingly choose not to visit hospitals and clinics for routine care. Instead, companies like Target will benefit from increased patient volume and revenue — from health services and other products sold to patients while they are in stores. 

So, let’s go back to the marketing challenge. Today, it’s enough to tell patients that they will be treated as an individual, will be seen quickly and more. Tomorrow, what will convince consumers visit hospitals for routine care or even see a doctor face-to-face? Why should they go to a clinic to have their blood drawn when going to the local Target is a lot easier? Also, as more people are enrolled in high deductible health plans with significant out of pocket costs, what’s the rationale for visiting the hospital (or doctor) in favor of a (cheaper) mobile virtual visit? 

It’s clear that in the face of increasing competition, hospitals, doctors and others will have to come up with a new value proposition and messaging to attract patients who have rejected the prospect of being treated like hamburgers. 

Marketers have a lot of thinking (and strategizing) to do. 

By the way, Sam’s current and future healthcare journey has big implications for people interested in accelerating and supporting innovation. To learn what I mean, please read this post from my LinkedIn blog.

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