I hope it is just a coincidence that 5 days after my visit to Southwestern Vermont Medical Center the Burlington Free Press (Burlington, VT) ran a story about a state legislator introducing legislation that would ban hospital advertising! You can check out the article online at http://tinyurl.com/yhb8kfr. The legislator in question would like to connect hospital advertising with the rising cost of healthcare. He is under the misguided perception that most healthcare advertising is spent try to lure patients away from hospitals outside the advertiser’s market area.
A point that is completely missed within the story, written by Terri Hallenbeck, a staff writer for the Free Press, is that most of the advertising that is done by community hospitals in Vermont (and elsewhere) is aimed at keeping patients in the community. It is aimed at communicating the expert range of services available right there in their own community, so patients won’t travel unnecessarily out of town to a distant tertiary center.
I wonder how this proposed legislation will impact for-profit institutions? Will they now have a competitive advantage because they can still advertise? And will the ban extend to specialty centers and physician practices?
How will hospitals communicate with potential referring physicians? Will physician marketing programs also be considered hospital advertising? In my opinion, it is very important that physicians understand what specialties and subspecialties are offered at hospitals within the region. My firm has used traditional consumer advertising channels to reach physicians (NPR, classical radio stations, high end publicatons, etc.). Would this bill ban that type of advertising as well?
These Vermont legislators are missing the point. For these hospitals to survive, they have to be able to tell their story to their constituents. The best healthcare marketing educates patients and potential patients within the community. Among other things, they learn about early detection and prevention through healthcare advertising. It is because of advertising that consumers know to ask about advanced technology for diagnostics and treatment. It is not only the hospital’s right to advertise, but it is the consumer’s right to access information about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of various institutions. Unfortunately, not all hospital advertising is helpful to consumers. A lot of it just confuses them. We often have hospitals in the same market area making contradictory claims (We’re #1). But that’s just bad advertising and a disservice to the constituents they should be serving. It is not grounds for a ban on hospital advertising.
Finally, if they ban hospital advertising in Vermont, how will they stop the major medical centers from New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts from advertising to Vermonters? Many Vermonters consume media from New York State and New Hampshire. So won’t the out-of-state medical centers advertising on those media outlets have a distinct advantage over Vermont hospitals?
Come on. Let’s use common sense. We allow tobacco companies to advertise. We allow liquor companies to advertise. Fast food companies and junk food manufacturers all advertise. Meanwhile we have an obesity epidemic in our country. And yet Vermont is thinking about banning hospital advertising? Hospitals are the good guys. They are taking care of the people of your state – including those who can’t afford health services. And they are the major employers in your communities. Enough of this. I’ve decided that it is time for me to move back to Vermont and run for office!
Okay, I have an idea. What I’d like to propose to Vermont is that we consider a ban on bad advertising. Is everyone in agreement? I’m sure they’ll need to hire a consultant to help them decide what advertising qualifies as good advertising. Anybody know an experienced healthcare marketing consultant?
Post by Dan Dunlop, The Healthcare Marketer