October 2004

Marketing Communications Firm Helps Hospitals
Define Problems and Implement Solutions

by John Fries

Hospital administrators and senior managers can often identify opportunities for growth and expansion based on need, population growth and other factors. And, when it comes to making improvements in clinical services, patient satisfaction surveys and other interactions can play key roles in pointing to where adjustment is needed.

Sometimes, though, it becomes necessary to bring in a specialist. Often, that's Patrick Buckley. President and CEO of Rynne Buckley Marketing and Communications, a Chicago consulting and communications firm.

Buckley and his team provide market research, strategic planning, brand development and a range of other related services to hospitals and health care-related organizations across the U.S. Over the past 20 years, the firm has worked with more than 700 health care organizations in all 50 states. He takes a scientific approach, believing that once public perception is thoroughly assessed, change can occur.

"Consumers are looking to find the best treatment," said Buckley. "And, many hospitals advertise. One effective tactic to make an impression on consumers is to advertise what we call ‘halo’ services. These are critical specialty areas, such as cardiac care, oncology, neuroscience and others."

The premise is simple. A hospital, included in a top 100 list of cardiac hospitals compiled by a credible evaluating body, decides to let the world know about it by buying strategically-placed billboards and running television spots during the evening news. Consumers see the ads and deduce that, if a hospital has an excellent rating or reputation for a certain key specialty area, then they must offer excellence in other areas as well.

"People are always looking for verifiable objectives in areas like heart care" said Buckley. "In addition to talking with trusted friends and relatives, they want third party endorsement from reliable and objective sources." Before hospitals can start putting ads together, though, they need to understand who they are and have a good sense of where they stand with the marketplace they serve.

One of Rynne Buckley’s areas of expertise is in market research, which uncovers that information via a number of avenues.

"First," he said, "we review a great deal of secondary information–from the demographics of the community served by the hospital to any information that can tell us how the hospital is perceived. Then, we may recommend the hospital undertake a comprehensive community perception survey. This helps us learn what features and characteristics about the hospital are most important to the people who live in the facility’s service area."

As you might expect, research often reveals a gap between how hospital administrators think their publics perceive them and how they actually do. Sometimes, that gap can be pretty wide. Buckley said that most administrators consider it a reality check, and nearly always want to take appropriate steps to correct problems and enhance perceptions.

Sometimes the enhancements can have dramatic implications. "We learned through research that one hospital with which we worked ranked in the 16th percentile in emergency services. After working with the hospital for a while and providing counsel, we helped move them to the 90th percentile," he said.

Rynne Buckley also works closely with hospitals that are looking to develop new clinical services.
"It’s important to do the necessary homework before planning programs and services," said Buckley. "We’ll help the hospital address the important issues up front. For example, addressing critical questions like whether they have the necessary clinical interdependencies worked out, or the right people to staff the initiative, or whether the public even wants the service."

For many clients, Rynne Buckley performs what they call market opportunity analysis. "By analyzing key market information, DRG groupings, and research findings, we can recommend where dollars are best invested. We also work with clients to create brand and business development plans that are focused on what can bring business in the door in the near term as well as down the road."

Brand development is key to the success of a new or existing facility or service. A brand is the immediate connection a hospital has in the mind of its patients, community and other audiences.

"To be effective, a hospital’s brand should be present in everything it stands for," said Buckley. "I ask my clients how they want to be perceived. Ultimately, the brand should communicate that in a consistent manner. Once established and defined, they are expressed in various ways to different audiences, and it’s important to have a clear, focused primary message."

He added that, "a brand can also be very helpful with recruitment efforts, since it can embody prestige and other positive attributes that might attract new staff members".

Buckley said that many of today’s most successful hospitals are often the ones that reach out to their public, and keep their name in front of their audiences.

"They need to be perceived as accessible and friendly," he said. "They can achieve this by doing things like offering internet-enabled health information centers for the public’s use, and by interacting with the communities they serve."

He noted that sometimes hospitals aren’t always aware of impediments to accessiblity. "Maybe the hospital is in a prolonged state of construction, and it inconveniences the patient," who has to find his or her way through a maze of wood and scaffolding. "Or, when you call, you always get voice mail, rather than a person answering the phone. Those kinds of things are what shape the public’s perception."

He said that many leading hospitals today take a very integrated approach to the care they provide.

"They’ll identify a real need, like back care—which eight out of 10 people may eventually seek out—and build a multidisciplinary center around it that provides a variety of services. This helps them to position the center as a focused specialty area within the hospital."

Rynne Buckley helps hospitals with a wide range of services, from planning and marketing, to helping develop services lines within the hospital, to working with existing service lines so they maximize their potential, and to advertising through communications vehicles such as TV, print, radio, outdoor, direct mail and web sites.

"We want to help hospitals and health care organizations wisely use the information they gather, and craft the messages they communicate to the public. We also conduct audits and assessments of the marketing discipline to help marketing directors and their CEOs to identify structural and functional areas where marketing can be more effective."

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Copyright © 2005 by John Fries, Pittsburgh, PA.
Please direct all correspondence to john@johnfries.com