Is 'Health System Thinking' The Future Of Healthcare Marketing?

Once upon a time, a smartly dressed sales representative pulled out a cleverly designed sales aid and sat with a doctor to describe the features and benefits of an amazing new product. The doctor was impressed with the presentation, or at least liked the representative enough to write a prescription for her product. Mission accomplished! While this was once a fairly accurate description of how we marketed healthcare products, it’s now just a fairy tale. 

Today, behind every healthcare decision is a world of complexity. Choices about diagnostics, therapies, and procedures are moving out of the hands of individual doctors and into the domain of cross-functional teams—teams that are trying to set standards of care aimed at achieving the best outcomes based on individual patient profiles. That’s good news. Hopefully, this will mean that someone in the far reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who has been diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma will have the same chance of survival as someone diagnosed and treated in midtown Manhattan. With the amount of knowledge and data available in key clinical areas, where  you live should not influence if you live. 



As marketers, we need to think and act differently in this environment of highly interdependent decision-making. We need more “health system thinking” that takes a holistic view of how products and services can help solve bigger and broader problems, such as improving population health, enhancing patient experience, and extending health resources. This new marketing environment more closely resembles the complexity of a living, breathing, changing organism rather than a step-wise, mechanistic process. 

To be a good marketer who practices “health system thinking” is to be like a good doctor who uses her holistic understanding of anatomy and physiology to effectively treat a specific problem. The body of healthcare is a dynamic, changing system as literal and virtual walls between care settings disappear, as more and more data are shared, and as partnering between providers and payers becomes more common.

As a biology student, I like the idea of thinking about business challenges from a systems perspective. But as a marketer, it can be a little overwhelming with so many variables to consider. To help bring some clarity to how health system thinking can set the foundation for healthcare marketing strategy, there are three key questions that need to be answered:

1. How am I helping the patient?

Sounds basic, but I’ve always been surprised by how often this question isn’t asked or answered in discussions of healthcare marketing strategy. We all are, have been, or will be patients at different times in our lives—so what’s in it for us? If you feel really good about your answer to this question, you can go to question 2. If you’re not proud enough to shout your answer from a mountaintop, then pause. As the healthcare business model starts to reward value-based care, the days of seeing people and procedures as profit centers are over. Put patients first.

2. How am I helping to extend healthcare resources?

One thing is clear. The number of people who need or will need care is greater than the resources currently available. And these resources aren’t just dollars; they are the people, places, and things that can help people get better. As marketers, we need to help move the conversation away from acquisition costs and volume-based discounts to more meaningful and dimensional discussions on resource utilization. At the top of every health system sits a person who is worried about having enough resources to help people who need care.

3. How am I helping my business?

If you feel good about your answers to questions 1 and 2, then question 3 should be easier to answer. Systems thinking isn’t transactional. The best solutions are synergistic collaborations – two parties coming together to create more value than they hold as individuals. For example, when a pharmaceutical company can help a health system identify and treat a patient’s problem at the early stages before it progresses to something more difficult and costly to manage, everybody wins. This is plain and simple, do well by doing good.

Every so often I hear one of my marketing colleagues in the healthcare industry describe their efforts in ways that could be confused with selling cereal or soup. I think that’s a mistake. Healthcare marketing carries greater responsibility and can have greater rewards. The pharmaceuticals, devices, technologies, and services that we work with can help change and save lives. That’s not marketing spin. It’s the truth, and we need to be proud of that.

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