Interesting Articles

Vermont Lawmakers Consider Ban on Hospital Advertising

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

9 comments on “Vermont Lawmakers Consider Ban on Hospital Advertising

  1. This isn’t the first time Vermont has considered doing something ridiculous. I live in Vermont and generally consider the state’s politics to be nicely progressive. But sometimes they go overboard.

    Like Massachusetts, Vermont has very strict reporting requirements for meetings involving health-care companies and doctors. Legislators would never think of restricting lawyers from, for example, having lunch with clients or potential clients — but they’ve done exactly that to the healthcare industry. Ridiculous.

  2. Anyone who has been in this business for any length of time has run into the “why should hospitals advertise?” argument. I’ve heard it from physicians, from friends, from people I’ve just met in airports, hotels and TweetUps. It’s really a variation on the “why should anyone advertise?” argument. The central point is that money spent on advertising could be saved and prices lowered. Or, that advertising “makes” people want what they don’t need and buy things that are unnecessary.

    Perhaps the Vermont proposal will bring this issue out into the open so practitioners like you and me and our clients and colleagues will stand up and explain the value of advertising done well and for the right reasons. How it has saved lives. How it has reduced smoking, identified people at risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other diseases so they can be treated. And so on, and so on.

    Perhaps we can educate the uninformed reporters, voters, taxpayers and friends why we do this. And why its of value.

  3. It always amazes me what legislators dream up. This is clearly a case of a solution looking for a need. As one who works directly with smaller critical access hospitals (yes, I admit this proposed legislation would hurt my business) we work with our client hospitals to clearly and effectively communicate the services offered. Good advertising provides the benefit message to the intended audience i.e. “here’s a medical issue that you may be facing and we can help”. As many in the healthcare cost debate will attest, real savings can be realized with preventative actions and patient education. Advertising can assist tremendously in this effort.

  4. Wow, not one word – anywhere – about freedom or the 1st Amendment. I guess the Constitution is so routinely ignored by the State, that it’s not worth mentioning anymore.

  5. A year ago, we placed DVD players in the back of our ambulances, which play clips of relaxing photos w/soothing music in the background. This hit the news locally as well as nationally. A Michigan State University professor was interviewed by the media, who stated that we were driving up the cost of healthcare by doing this. I have stories of how the DVD players have assisted us with providing quality medical care to our patients.

    Was part of our marketing strategy to set ourselves apart from the competition? Absolutely. Did we drive up the cost of healthcare by doing this? Absolutely not. We sold 5 out-of-service ambulances to offset the cost of the DVD players. I’m not sure how this supposedly drove up the cost of healthcare to our patients. We didn’t change our rates or bill the insurance company more.

    Most patients don’t know they have a choice on which medical provider to use, because they don’t understand the system. The only way to share our differences as healthcare providers, as it relates to quality and service, is to communicate. Communicating to our patients costs money when using the traditional forms of marketing. Show me a group of 65+ seniors who Twitter.

    Start forcing healthcare systems to report on their quality improvement projects that focus on waste reduction–not just clinical but operational waste reduction, and then we can continue talking about reducing the cost of healthcare.

  6. I actually think there are more good reasons to support a ban on hospital advertising than you all are giving credit for.

    But I am also a big free-market advocate, and want to live in a free society where businesses are able (within reason) to do as they please with their money. But are hospitals businesses? Most of them enjoy special tax-free non-profit status.

    My proposal is to ban hospital advertising for hospitals wishing to retain non-profit status. If they want to behave like businesses, then great, but make them pay their fair share of tax like other businesses.

    Personally though, I think the world would be a better place if hospitals did not advertise, and I wouldn’t be crying if any state, even an eccentric one like Vermont, passed an outright ban on hopsital advertising. Why? Hospitals can use advertising and PR to turn cash into a positive image. If they were not able to do this, the only ways they would be able to foster a positive image would be by delivering quality health care and helping the community. I find hospital advertising suspicious and react negatively to it because it seems to me that health care decisions are best left to professional recommendations of doctors and other healthcare professionals, referrals from patients, and coverage in independent, third-party sources. If a hospital cannot thrive on these sources of promotion, it makes you wonder if they’re really delivering quality care. At least, it makes me wonder that…and it makes me highly skeptical of it.

    • dandunlop

      Alex, I appreciate your comment. Unfortunately, unless every state were to ban healthcare advertising at one time, a ban in a single state will create all kinds of inequities. Large health systems across state boundaries will continue to pull patients away from community hospitals who are then unable to advertise to explain points of differentiation or to communicate their quality. I would also argue that a bad hospital that has negative word of mouth would have a very difficult time creating a positive brand image through advertising in this day and age. With the proliferation of social media, the consumer now has more power than ever – and a much louder voice. Unhappy patients and families will be heard. And there are now so many online rating services (quality data is also now being published online). I think you should give consumers more credit, respecting their ability to interpret and respond to hospital advertising intelligently – and to balance it with what they hear in their community.

  7. Health care industry is not cheaper. Those who are asking ban for it will they provide funds for the costly equipments. NO.
    Here are two things.
    For example one costly equipment is there, and there will be AMC/CMC s which are also costly, and technical persons who run and maintain are also costly. How to reach this cost? Will governament pays? If it is paid by government in any other form again it is our money only.
    Second thing the capacity of particular instrument should be utilised fully. To reach this the equipment needs consumers. Advertisement can attain this.
    Do you think, if any hospital is advertising, without any disease or illness will you visit it? Not at all. Unlike trying a new brand soap
    / cream even though you do not need it, only needy patients approach to a hospital.
    Whatever the advertisement quality it is hospital responsibility to deliver the quality and ETHICAL medical care which makes it sustainable.
    I hope I am not wrong.

  8. Pingback: Sept 17 Chat – Healthcare Advertising | hcldr

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