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The hospital experience is the marketing

December 18th, 2013

by Anthony Cirillo

At a meeting of the Healthcare Planning and Marketing Society of New Jersey, I spoke about the intersection of patient experience and marketing and why they are tied at the hip. When all is said and done, word of mouth (WOM) is your most important marketing tool.

"In many cases, WOM isn't actually "marketing" at all. It's great customer service that earns customer respect," according to Andy Sernovitz, author of "Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking."

Change customer to patient, or better yet "person," and respect to loyalty and you have the essence of the connection. The experience of care is the marketing.

I and other authors here on Hospital Impact spend a lot of time preaching about the experience of care and how we should approach it and why we need to pay attention to it. Perhaps there is a simpler way to get both leadership and front-line staff engaged. Tell them they are both chief experience officer and chief marketing officer for the organization. Because you know what, they are.

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There has to be a further understanding that the experience of care is not only the clinical experience. The experience after people are discharged also impacts marketing.

The health systems in North Carolina were beaten up in the press last year because of their somewhat questionable collection practices, to the point where people's wages were being garnished, liens put on homes and estates, and lawsuits filed galore.

In Connance's latest research around the payment experience, 25 percent of patients give billing processes a top score of five out of five; 59 percent rate billing processes three or less. Of the former, 81 percent would recommend the facility. Of the latter, only 8 percent would recommend.

And interestingly, over time, a former patient's positive perception of the hospital wanes. If the billing process is bad, six months down the line, the person will not be as satisfied as when they reported on discharge.

How many marketers worry about their billing processes and their impact on the brand? Few, I am sure. And with increasing demand for payment up front this issue will only worsen.

See, experiences impact everything--recruitment, retention, referrals, revenue, margins and quality. Press Ganey analyzed hospitals' readmission penalty data in the context of their HCAHPS scores to determine if performance on the two pay-for-performance programs were linked. They were.

As hospital performance on HCAHPS increased, readmission penalties decreased. Very low HCAHPS performance was associated with much-higher-than-average readmission penalties, and very high HCAHPS performance was associated with much-lower-than-average readmission penalties.

So it's a bit incestuous. Everything is related. An action in one area has an impact in many.

The lowly marketer's job is harder than ever because so much is out of his or her control. But what is becoming apparent is the marketer needs to become the chief culture officer in the health system. Someone has to connect the dots of experiences as they are related to brand reputation.

So instead of looking outward with marketing, perhaps the marketer needs to look inward, deep in the bowels of the hospital, helping the billing staff and others to understand that though they are not patient facing, they nonetheless affect the experience of the care, the delivery on the brand promise, and the overall perception and willingness to recommend the hospital in the future.

Anthony Cirillo, FACHE, ABC, is president of Fast Forward Consulting, which specializes in experience management and strategic marketing for healthcare facilities. He also is the expert guide in Assisted Living for About.com.

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