When Reality Meets Strategy:
A Personal Health Care Marketing Story

by Terri Langhans, CSP

I can’t remember when I wasn’t working in marketing and advertising.  Because I’ve been working on health care accounts since before DRGs were invented, I guess you could say I know my way around hospitals, too.  I’ve been in the laminar air flow room to watch total joint replacement surgery, the cath lab for angioplasty, and board rooms all over America for marketing plan presentations.  I delight in talking about effective strategy as a professional speaker at national conferences.

Then my husband got cancer.  That’s when I learned a lot about hospital marketing that I couldn’t have learned any other way.  I experienced it.

Don’t be mistaken.  I was grateful for all my years of experience, the confidence that comes from being an “insider.”  I figured it would serve us well, especially on hearing the “C-word” diagnosis four days before Christmas.  I told my husband the heck with hurting his PPO-sanctioned physician’s feelings; he was getting a second opinion.  Treatment options for prostate cancer are vast.  Given the oh-so-flattering compliment that my husband was considered young “in urological terms,” surgery was being strongly recommended.

So did I call our health plan for a referral to a PPO-endorsed second-opinion urologist?  Did I use the physician referral service at the birthplace of my children?  Did I call the physician referral service at the major medical center known to be the leader in the area?  No, no, and no.

I called my contacts in hospital marketing departments.  I called nurses.  I dug up an article I’d saved in which doctors recommended the specialists they’d use for their own family members.  I called a friend who is a physical therapist.  One doctor’s name came up several times, and, thankfully, it showed up in our PPO’s directory.  I mentioned all this and quoted the accolades to the doctor’s receptionist when I called to beg for an appointment.  She squeezed us in that same day.

My husband and I braced for a rushed physician who would tell us what to do, take it or leave it, and move on to the next exam room.  Imagine my surprise when he invited us to chat in his office.  When we started asking intelligent questions, obviously fueled by our all-nighter on the Internet, the urologist said, “I’m so glad you took the time to educate yourself about this disease and the options.  Please stop me if I’m telling you anything you already know.”  A physician encouraging the patient’s active involvement?  I almost asked for a photo ID to make sure his name matched the one in the framed diploma.

He was a marketing director’s dream doctor.  He drew pictures on a legal pad and thoroughly explained two different surgical techniques.  He told us what critics had to say about each and told us why he advocated one over the other and why.  He spent 45 minutes with us, well into his lunch hour, and he never once looked at his watch or allowed an interruption.  He invited us to think about it and call if we had any other questions.  No sales pitch.  No grandstanding.  No wonder we “hired” him on the spot.

When he asked us at which of two hospitals we wanted to have the surgery performed, I was again surprised.  I remember thinking that this was the moment of truth for which every hospital marketing plan is built.  Where image, brand, positioning, reputation, and perception all bubble through the consumer’s brain in a matter of nanoseconds and a decision is made.  So how did I behave in this classic push-pull strategic environment?  How did I exercise my powerful consumerism, my educated insider knowledge?  I asked him, “Which one do you prefer?”  Some marketing maven I am.

He had no preference!  (Physician Liaisons and Business Development Directors are shuddering as you read.) So we chose the regional medical center over the academic teaching hospital.  Why?  Despite the facts, logic, and information I had about the teaching hospital, it all boiled down to the perception that my husband would be one little plankton in a vast sea of patients.  So much for JCAHO ratings.

Waiting for the day of surgery was torture.  My husband said he actually looked forward to the lab tests, the autologous blood donation, and the pre-admit forms.  “I feel like I’m doing something to take care of this.  Otherwise I keep thinking how many times the cells have divided today.”

Finally the day of surgery came.  I brought my Mac, Blackberry, reading materials, and a novel to keep myself occupied in the lobby.  I left them in the car while I walked with my husband to the pre-op admitting area.  I worked in hospitals, so I felt right at home.

I don’t know if it was walking through double doors, crossing the wide painted line on the floor that designates a restricted area, or seeing my husband sit in a chair whose arm was equipped for drawing blood that started it.  But when the nurse in a mauve and sea foam uniform appeared in the entryway of our cubicle, my throat tightened, my eyes watered, and I couldn’t take a deep breath.

Everything became real and personal in that moment.  The patient wasn’t a bed day, covered life, or relationship to be maintained, managed, or tracked.  The patient was holding my now clammy hand.  It hit me hard.  I thought, if I cry, it will upset him.  If I tell him I love him, he’ll think that I think those might be my last words to him.  But what if this is the last time…no, don’t go there.  I’ll just squeeze his hand, but, no, he’ll look at me. We’ll have eye contact. He’ll see that I’m about to lose it.

My sobering thought came from nowhere.  I suddenly wondered what the hospital’s marketing director was doing right then.  Did she know there was someone about to lose it one floor below her?  Did she realize that every day there are probably many people about to lose it one floor below her?  Or was she reviewing the patient satisfaction survey or daily census?  Fine-tuning her marketing budget or authorizing media bills…like I used to do when I was a marketing director.

That’s when it hit me.  She and every single employee and volunteer in that hospital probably had no idea or had lost touch with how many people in that hospital were on the verge of losing it at any given moment on any given day.  If they weren’t about to lose it, as I felt I was, then at the very least their minds were racing and their imaginations were working overtime creating “what if” scenarios.  It was a parallel universe, unlike the one everyone else seemed to be inhabiting.

It’s a universe of hypersensitivity.  In the second it took me to see the nurse approach us, experience my epiphany, and semi-compose myself, I realized that my entire opinion of that hospital rested on whatever she did next.  The nuance of her smile, if she had one.  (She did.)  Did she sit or stand to fill out her forms?  (She sat, which told me she was not going to rush.)  Was her small talk genuine or was it dialogue quoted from a training script?  (It seemed genuine to me.)

I realized that every point of contact, every employee or volunteer, had the power to make or break that hospital’s reputation.  With a look, gesture, touch, wink, or word (all with the potential for being positive or negative), anyone could demonstrate or demolish years of marketing strategy and branding.

It was the way a nurse called me from the operating room just to give me an update on my husband’s progress.  Surgery had started late, “so don’t worry that it is taking too long; he’s doing well and will be in surgery for about 45 more minutes.  Then we’ll call you when he’s in recovery and again when he’s being taken to his room so that you can be there when he arrives.  He’s going to be in recovery for a couple of hours, so have you eaten?  You should grab some dinner.”  I would have nominated her for sainthood if it had been a Catholic hospital.  One phone call.  Immense peace of mind, not to mention mind-reading.

Then there was the young licensed vocational nurse who knew it would take an act of Congress for the kitchen to send up broth when my husband arrived in his room around 8 p.m.  “I think I can score you some Jell-O off the maternity ward,” she said.

Score me some Jell-O? Was I going to get in trouble over this is? When she came back with two strawberry snack packs and handed them to my husband, he asked her to marry him!

The two days I spent “patient side” in my parallel universe at the hospital provided ongoing revelations.   As a marketing person, I realized that our world, our sphere of influence, should go beyond distributing the marketing action plans for departments to implement, ensuring ad campaign launches, verifying that campaign claims are valid, or making sure that the rotation of physician names on the referral system is fair.  We need to remember what’s going on in the hearts and minds of the people who trust us.  We need to find infinite ways we can make a difference in their universe, because that’s when we’ll earn a permanent place in it.

About the Author
(If you reprint this article, it must include the following attribution.)

Terri Langhans, Certified Speaking Professional, is the former CEO of a national ad agency and marketing firm and author of The 7 Marketing Mistakes Every Business Makes (And How to Fix Them). She is COE (Chief of Everything) at Blah Blah Blah, where she is relentless about helping business people make their marketing and presentations less ordinary and more effective. Call (800) 207-0015 or visit www.BlahBlahBlah.us

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Terri Langhans

Terri Langhans, CSP, COE
Certified Speaking Professional
Chief of Everything
Blah Blah Blah Etc., Inc.


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