Patient Access and Marketing: Why Does It Fail To Deliver?

images (5)Understanding people can be like trying to understand a Picasso painting.  Half the country believes gun control means using both hands.  Ninety percent of the country believes in ghosts. A fair share believe in Sasquatch and an equal number believe the moon landing never happened.  Thirty-five percent can correctly identify Homer Simpson’s fictional home town, yet less than one percent knows the name Thurgood Marshall.

All of these same people belong to one of two groups.  They are either patients or prospective patients of your health system.

I had been invited to peek behind the green curtain and was off to meet the wizard. The health system’s marketing strategic planning meeting was already underway when I was ushered in. In the room were the Chief Marketing Officer, the system’s head of business development, someone from IT—because every meeting always has someone from IT in attendance, and a handful of analysts.  The young fellow responsible for the system’s Facebook page and Twitter account was also present.  Along the far wall, seated next to the nearly empty tray of bagels was a somber-looking retired gentleman—more on him later.

Taped along the walls were large sheets of paper displaying the results of their brain-storming session. Each sheet listed initiatives around a specific marketing tactic to be deployed over the next twelve months.  There was a sheet extolling the benefits of advertising on NPR. Right next to it was a sheet discussing a billboard marketing initiative.  Apparently, still to be decided was whether a group photo of the urologists would generate more new patients than a group photo of the podiatrists.

The IT gal had her own sheet.  She would be responsible for the dialing for dollars campaign—telemarketing calls.  A fourth sheet focused entirely on the elevator campaign.  I deduced that the elevator campaign dealt exclusively with taping a sheet of paper to the back wall of every elevator describing whichever initiative was being marketed each month.  June is stop-smoking month, July is stop-drinking month, and August is stop-eating month. I thought about mentioning that nobody would read what is on the piece of paper because people in elevators tend to face forward, but I did not want to be tossed out of the meeting until I saw what they were serving for lunch.

Probably because she sensed I was getting antsy, the Chief Marketing Officer asked me if I had any questions, or whether I cared to make a contribution.  I shifted around on my chair and I tried to look like I was being reflective.  Rising slowly, I moved from page to page, my hands clasped behind me.

“What does it cost to acquire a new patient?” I asked. “And do you think your department covers its own costs?”

The person seated next to the Chief Marketing Officer leaned over to her and whispered, “You said there wasn’t going to be a test.”

“Nobody knows,” she replied. She gave similar answers to questions like; “How many new patients did marketing acquire last year?” “Which campaigns worked the best?” “How many people who try to sign up for a program are never heard from again?”

Then I asked if they could point to anyone who had ever become their patient as a direct result of a marketing initiative.

“That is why Walter is here,” she said as she pointed to the retired gentleman.  “He saw one of our billboards twenty years ago, parked his car, and became a patient. We bring him to every one of our meetings to give us inspiration.”

“If you had to state the goal of the marketing department in one phrase what would you say?”  The guy who asked about there being a test was starting to look very dismayed.

“The goal is to get someone interested enough in our hospital to call us.”

A few more questions uncovered that prospective patients—consumers—call the scheduling center (It’s like a call center, only much less functional).  Sometimes the schedulers receive a flier describing the campaign, and they tape the flier to their cubicle. Other times, they have no idea what the caller is asking about, nor are they able to help the caller.

Health systems spend a lot of money trying to acquire patients.  In reality, I think they spend a lot of money trying to generate enough interest to get someone to call. I think they spend almost no money trying to acquire or capture the interested person.  It’s like spending a lot of money on a hand-made graphite fly-rod and a pair of neoprene waders and giving the gear to someone else who you hope knows how to set the hook in the mouth of a fish.

The acquisition part of marketing is the part where the person interested in one of your system’s services commits to buying the service. The only place acquisition can happen is during the access process, by phone, and that process is broken.

Marketing works hard to attract new patients, yet nobody is working hard to capture them, to set the hook. The prospective patients disappear.  I guess that is a little like what happens with patient leakage.  But nobody is working hard to capture them either.

People are disappearing left and right.  People who are worth around two hundred thousand dollars to a health system. I may have spotted one of the disappeared in the hallway, but it could have been Sasquatch. I believe improving access could cut the number of disappeared significantly.  But I also believe we landed on the moon so I could be wrong.

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