Random Rambling

How Did You Become A Healthcare Marketer?

I remember when my step daughter was graduating from Kindergarten – during the ceremony they went around the room and asked each child what they wanted to be when they grew up. Many of the children gave the kind of answers you’d expect; they wanted to grow up to be a doctor, a lawyer, an astronaut or President of the United States. I was really proud of Meg who bucked the trend and declared that she wanted to grow up to be a rancher.  (The truth is she wanted to be a rancher who was also an artist.) It won’t surprise you to learn that no one expressed a desire to become a healthcare marketer. It’s just not something people think about or even know about at a young age.

So many of my friends are healthcare marketers of some sort. Some work in the digital realm, some are PR professionals, some are masters of integrated marketing, and others are graphic artists, writers and programmers. I’m curious to learn what professional path each individual followed to become a healthcare marketer. You have to know there are some great stories out there, and there were probably some major twists and turns along the way.

I’ll kick it off by sharing the path I followed:

College Internship: I left the University of Vermont after the fall semester of my sophomore year and headed down to North Carolina where my father had taken a position with the University of North Carolina System. Poverty (student loans) was the primary determining factor. So I enrolled at UNC for the spring semester with a curiosity about medicine/healthcare as a career. With that in mind, I accepted a paid internship with the nurse recruiting office at NC Memorial Hospital. The internship gave me the opportunity to meet all of the nursing leadership within the hospital – amazing people like Fran Ross, Sandy Evans and Rita Kubicki. The woman who hired me, Dia Stokes, was married to the man who would become the VP of Marketing for UNC Health Care, John Stokes, who would later become my client, friend and mentor. I didn’t see that coming when I was 19-years-old.

When my internship ended my contacts and friends within the nursing department encouraged me to take a job working nights as a nursing assistant at NC Memorial Hospital. I worked on the medicine side of a cardiovascular med/surg floor (6A/6B of the main bed tower). In that role I learned a ton – most significant was a respect for nurses and the job they do. Wow. It has stayed with me all these years. Based on that experience I also decided that being a doctor was not for me.

After spending way too much time in graduate school, I became a professional communicator and started my career marketing political candidates, and then quickly moved into broadcasting. My dad had worked in broadcasting and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. For a few years I managed a community radio station in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In that role, I had the good fortune to work with Durham Regional Hospital (now part of Duke Medicine). They were one of my clients and my contact there was Bernard Kingsley who gave me an education in hospital marketing. Together with his staff, I helped to create and produce a weekly radio program called “Community Health Update.” This was back in 1991-1992. Each week we would cover different health topics and interview physicians from Durham Regional Hospital. Now 20 years later I’m still interviewing physicians and marketing key service lines within hospitals.

In 1995 I was hired by Jennings and immediately went to work on the UNC Hospitals account. Working with John Stokes and his team at UNC, we built the integrated UNC Health Care brand, bringing together more than 50 distinct brands under the single UNC Health Care umbrella. I led the focus groups and developed the methodology that we used to test the brand and its graphic representation. It was amazing to be a part of that rebranding effort, and I was hooked!

When John Stokes retired from UNC Health Care, I fell under the mentorship of Karen McCall, the new VP of Marketing and Public Affairs. Karen was responsible for helping me to get my first industry conference speaking engagements as well as my first publishing opportunities. She also made me go out and buy my first fancy brief case which I carried with me to my consulting engagements with her internal clients. Looking back, it seems odd given most people I know today carry backpacks rather than brief cases; but it was important at the time and became part of my young healthcare marketing consultant persona. I don’t carry the formal brief case any longer. I’ve replaced it with the air of authority that comes with greying hair.

So that’s my story, what’s yours? I want to know. How did you become a healthcare marketer? Please leave a comment with s synopsis of your professional history.

8 comments on “How Did You Become A Healthcare Marketer?

  1. Thank you SO much for sharing your story. I am in the middle of a career transition (spent almost 20 years in working in college athletics). But, after seeing all that my mom went through with her lung cancer diagnosis, I knew that healthcare admin was where I was meant to be. It’s been a hard road because I’m trying to convince others that I can work in healthcare…I have transferrable skills in PR, marketing and event management. Your post has given me encouragement. I recently started following you on Twitter, which is how I discovered this blog. Thanks!

    • dandunlop

      RoniLynn, thanks so much for your comment and for sharing your story! Let me know how I can help with your career transition. Healthcare can always use more good people.

      • Thank you so much Dan. I am in the midst of trying to figure out HOW to break in…I spent much of my professional life telling others how to get into a sports career…and in my early 40’s I find myself now seeking same advice, except it’s now healthcare. Ha! And it could be that I’m applying for the wrong jobs? I started my blog while my mom was sick and it was and still is a great outlet. Made me even more determined to switch careers. But I’m not quite certain if my resume conveys what it should…it’s heavy on the athletic and event management side, though I’ve tried really hard to revamp it.

        And I would agree that much of who we are in our careers can be traced back to the solid relationships we forged early on…regardless of the field in which we work. As Mary posted below, our working relationships are REALLY important and critical to our success. I tell interns that all of the time.

  2. Wow, Dan! Your story reminds me of the importance of the people we meet along the way. I graduated the University of Michigan w/a BA in English after three painful years of engineering core curriculum. I started my professional career editing women’s fiction at Bantam Books in NYC. After a year of sleeping on the floor I followed my then boyfriend (for shame!) to Chicago when he was accepted into medical school. The editing scene in Chicago was non-existent so I landed a gig writing RFP responses for an enterprise software company. My engineering and english background came in handy and I worked my way into fist competitive analysis and then industry analyst relations positions. When my company was acquired I followed my then boss to a start up which failed and then moved on to another start up which failed. Along the way, I learned how to develop marketing service lines and project manage a consumer-oriented website that went through two launches per day. Still in need of a stable paying job to help support my then husband who was still in medical school (a prevalent theme in my life), I took a marketing job with Allegiance Healthcare. At Allegiance (which is now Cardinal Health), it felt as if I had been transported into the dark ages of marketing. In fact, it turns out that what I had been hired to do was actually sales enablement in disguise. I used to print out marketing articles and tape them to my clear office windows in the hopes that people passing by might read them and get inspired (this was pre-Twitter). After several months on the job and during the sixteenth meeting where the marketing team was struggling to come up with a positioning statement (primarily b/c no one in the room had any experience doing that), I spoke up out of frustration and my role changed into something that more resembled the type of marketing I’d been exposed to in the software industry. During my tenure in that position, I attended a branding conference given by a company called Brandtrust. I was so impressed that I hired them to do a major project for us. The project was very successful. Shortly after that, I left Cardinal to go out on my own in anticipation of several years of moving with my husband’s training. Brandtrust was my first client. They were my primary source of employment for my first two years in consulting. While working with one of their medical device manufacturing clients, I met a fellow consultant, Sandra Bauman. She and I hit it off so well, that we began to partner up on project work. Three moves and several years later, she and I formalized our business relationship such that, in addition to project work, I have had the opportunity to develop our blog and social media activities. Through Sandra, I’ve also had the privilege to work with one of her close colleagues, Steve Rivkin. Steve is a naming expert and has co-authored several books with Jack Trout (one of my all-time heros in marketing). Much of the healthcare marketing I’ve been able to work on has been in tandem with Steve and Sandra. I feel lucky every day to have the chance to work alongside and learn from such experienced, professional and fun people. It was not at all the path I had in mind for my career, but it’s turned out to be a great run.

    • dandunlop

      Mary, what a great story! Thanks for sharing. I knew people would have interesting accounts to share. I love the twists and turns that were part of your path.

  3. I sometimes call myself the Accidental Marketer.

    My original plan was to be Woodard/Bernstein rolled into one, ending my career as Katherine Graham (or Mrs. Pynchon from TV’s Lou Grant if you want to know the real inspiration). Fresh out of J-school, I was lucky enough to work as a reporter and editor at The Tennessean in Nashville back in the days of John Seigenthaler’s leadership. But when my daughter was a baby, and my then husband was working nights on the desk, combining two daily news careers and a family was near impossible. So I went to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where I have served a variety of roles. I started as editor of our weekly in-house paper, working for a local version of Lou Grant, a former newspaper city editor who ran his News Office team like a newsroom. Great transition from journalism, but at that time, I still thought of marketing as the Dark Side.

    Long story short, one position led to another: alumni magazine editor, media relations officer, speechwriter, PR specialist for the medical center, then media relations director for our cancer center. During a six-year stint as communications officer for our cancer center, I ended up serving as my own marketing manager while that position was vacant. (Yes, in Tennessee, you can be your own Grandpa AND report to yourself). Around that time, I also met a half dozen or so fabulous women who worked in marketing at various academic-based cancer centers, women with whom I am lucky to have become personal friends. I admire and respect them tremendously. They taught me that marketing isn’t a bad word, it’s actually a lot of fun, a great challenge, and despite the perception that “all marketers are liars,” you can do it in an honest, authentic and mission-driven way.

    Add a major leadership change and I ended up reporting to the chief marketing officer. I oversee our content and social engagement strategies for Vanderbilt University Medical Center and I love it. I never was one for The Five-Year Plan and I’m glad, because if I had been, I never would have caught the waves I’ve ridden to this point in my life.

    • dandunlop

      Thanks so much for sharing your story! I love your sense of humor. They are lucky to have you at Vanderbilt!

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