Many healthcare marketers are feeling the pressure to assist their organizations with improving national rankings. Of growing importance, these quality, service and financial indicators are helping hospitals to differentiate their services, recruit talent and benchmark their progress with employees and community stakeholders. For this reason, investing time and resources in improving these rankings makes sense.
Not satisfied with being passive participants in their organizations’ national rankings and quality scores, Beth NeCamp of The Ohio State Medical Center (OSUMC) and Donna Teach of Nationwide Children’s Hospital are examples of the type of healthcare marketing professionals who are taking a more proactive role in improving their organizations standings.
But their experiences also shed more light on the fact that there are no easy marketing fixes, hospital systems have to be committed to the task and, results come over time. More importantly, both are championing thoughtful approaches involving analyzing the various ratings programs, building internal understanding and consensus and developing formal reputation-building processes that maximize their efforts over time. And clearly this type of strategy is paying off for these two institutions and many others like them that are taking similar approaches.
Which ones are most important will vary with the organization and may depend on what your long-term objectives are, what service lines are most important to grow, your balance of internal and external needs, how your competitors are marketing themselves and a host of other factors. Being able to align business objectives with relevant third-party measurements is essential.
Some ratings are produced by third-party companies (Thomson Reuter’s 100 Top Hospitals is an example), while others like ANCC’s Magnet Recognition Program for Nursing and the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award typically require a significant investment of time and resources. And some require an application fee or charge a fee as part of an evaluation. J.D. Power and Associates is an example of the later. Still others including surveys like Hospitals & Health Network’s Most Wired Hospital program and some of the popular top-hospital magazine lists only require you to complete an application for consideration or inclusion.
The marketing of ratings programs themselves varies tremendously as well. The America’s Best Hospital list is promoted by U.S. News while Consumer Reports is only open to subscribers. Hospital Compare and similarly mandated quality data programs have public web sites but in reality there are no funds to educate the public or promote the rankings in any meaningful way and so awareness and understanding of these ratings is much lower.
And finally, while some awards and recognition programs can be used in marketing programs free of charge with few restrictions, others may have very strict guidelines on the appropriate citation of the award and use in marketing. And still others may require a licensing fee for the rights to use the rating company’s name and the rankings in your advertising. HealthGrades is one example and more recently, U.S. News has been testing the idea with advertisers as well.
NeCamp, who is Chief Communications Officer at OSUMC, points out that healthcare ratings are just one part of a marketing plan that is one part of a larger, multi-faceted National Reputation Plan the institution developed as the guiding framework for everything they do.
And that philosophy of focusing on reputation frames everything in such as way as to place certain ratings programs within the context of a more meaningful and practical approach to marketing the institution. “Reputation influences rankings, which in turn influences everything from recruitment and research funding to consumer awareness and quality of care. And all that influences our reputation and so on,” she explains. “As we see it, it’s all inter-connected which means we don’t have to spend time debating methodologies but instead can focus on our reputation and quality.”
As an example, OSUMC’s goal is to be a top 20 academic medical center in the U.S. and twenty-five percent of their internal scorecard is tied to the U.S. News rankings. In many ways, the ranking is a validation of what they are doing, not an end in and of itself and this is an important distinction. As NeCamp puts it, “We’re not chasing rankings, we’re chasing quality.”
Teach, who is Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations at Children’s, also has a similar shared platform of understanding and focus among the leadership team. “We know for instance that certain things are important and we agree on these. Magnet is important to our nurses, national rankings are important to the sub-specialists we’re trying to recruit and being on the Philanthropy 400 is very important to our donors and hence to our Foundation.”
Both organizations also point to the critical importance of having physicians vested in the effort and have put physicians at the center of their efforts as well. OSUMC has three physician leaders on its National Reputation Panel which helps drive the efforts of others. Children’s has a Medical Director overseeing all their ratings submissions in addition to a medical director for each of their major ratings programs.
“We don’t have any meetings on ratings that a doctor isn’t present,” states NeCamp. “And many of these physicians are also working on their own individual rankings at the same time.”
Among the specific things that hospitals like OSUMC and Nationwide Children’s are doing to improve their rankings are strategies and tactics that aim to enhance the quality, accuracy and relevance of their organization’s information when it’s compiled or submitted for review.
“Understanding and maximizing the surveys is essential,” says Teach. “You have to read them carefully and fill them out completely. The fine print is very important as well. If the survey ask for three ways you enhance the customer experience, you better give three examples.”
She adds that interviews with the survey managers and publication editors can be helpful before the submission process to learn insights about how to complete the information accurately, and again as a sort of post-mortem review once the survey is out to help understand how your data was interpreted. Over time, Nationwide has been able to enhance their applications and fine-tune what they submit for some of the ratings programs.
For other types of third-party data, such as the MedPar data that organizations such as HealthGrades and Thomson Reuters use to rank hospitals, marketers have sometimes found that coding can be the cause of low scores. A detailed analysis of clinical or operational data over a certain period of time can often uncover such issues and help an organization to correct some of these data reporting errors that may be causing them to rank lower than they would otherwise.
For other measurement programs like the HCAHPS patient experience scores and similar customer service ratings, some hospital have found that simple operational changes can have a significant impact on their scoring from patients. One frequently cited example is the use of pre-op and discharge phone calls to patients. Studies have consistently shown that hospitals do better on customer surveys from patients who have received these types of calls versus control groups who did not.
Communications is also a critically important component of any national reputation-building program. OSUMC created an Annual Accomplishment Report to market its heart program and mailed the report to over 30,000 cardiovascular medicine and surgery specialist around the country. And it hosts physician-focused cardiac CME courses with OSU and other nationally ranked leaders targeted at physicians in the southeast.
And combining good old-fashioned media relations tactics such as having specialists travel to meet with medical writers and then leveraging story opportunities with new media can have a powerful impact as well, as NeCamp was able to do with one particular news opportunity around a study looking at how wireless heart monitors were keeping patients out of the hospital.
Both OSUMC and Nationwide Children’s have seen tangible results for their efforts over the past two years. Within its heart program, OSUMC went from not being on the U.S. News Best Hospitals ranking to more recently increasing it’s ranking 17 spots (from 37 to 20) from 2009 and 2010. And Nationwide Children’s has moved from 14th on Parent’s Magazine’s America’s Best Children’s Hospital list, in 2009 to 6th in 2011.
But, as Teach points out, “Validations are just the price of admission that moves the target audience into awareness and consideration. The real question is whether you are ready for that shopping experience. How is your customer service? What is the patient experience like? How are you facilitating word-of-mouth?”
Indeed, good healthcare marketing doesn’t end with the next award or higher rating. It’s merely one component of building a stronger reputation and maintaining that distinction over time.
About the Authors:
Both nationally recognized experts in healthcare marketing, Susan Dubuque is the cofounder and principal and Daniel Fell is president of Neathawk Dubuque & Packett, an advertising agency headquartered in Richmond, VA.