Health care organizations’ overarching goal is providing needed diagnostic, treatment, and recovery services and ultimately helping patients. None of this is possible, however, if patients don’t seek care. As such, medical organizations depend on robust, effective marketing to ensure that they earn the trust of patients in their community.
Increasingly, effective health care marketing hinges on digital communication strategies, including social media and search engine optimization. A Journal of Medical Internet Research study notes that about 80% of adults turn to the internet for information about health maladies and possible treatments. In other words, if health care organizations want to meet their audience directly, the best place to do so is online. A Zenith Media report confirms this, noting that the internet is expected to overtake TV as the biggest medium for health care advertising in 2021.
Therefore, one of the most significant skills for health care executives is the ability to plan and execute a highly targeted marketing strategy that cost-effectively engages current and potential patients. By pursuing an advanced degree in health administration, practice leaders and hospital executives can hone their digital outreach and communication skills and develop the foundational competencies needed to stay abreast of advanced health care marketing strategies.
What Is Health Care Marketing?
It may be tempting to assume that health care marketing is simply the promotion of health care services. Actually, the real definition of health care marketing is a little more complicated. Health care marketing is a multidisciplinary approach, one that not only relies on common marketing, advertising, and public relations principles but also incorporates scientific principles and public health theories.
Additionally, health care marketing can be multifaceted; while it’s certainly important for generating interest in clinical treatments or pharmaceutical interventions (drawing patients to a particular practice, for example, or establishing goodwill toward a new medication), health care marketing can also focus on educating patients, raising awareness, and more.
Defining Health Care Marketing
What is health care marketing, exactly? Basically, it’s a field devoted to creating, communicating, and disseminating patient-centered information about the disease, illness prevention, and medical services.
Health care marketing may draw upon many of the foundational theories of marketing, advertising, and outreach, employing tools like social media marketing, email marketing, and traditional TV advertisements. What distinguishes health care marketing from other forms of marketing is that it also includes science-based strategies intended to promote health and disease prevention. In other words, traditional marketing disciplines may be integrated with public health research.
Imagine that a plastic surgery practice wants to launch a new campaign for marketing its breast reduction services. The practice may draw on core marketing principles, but it’ll also look to medical data to determine what causes a woman to seek breast reduction, what health complications are associated with large breasts, and what positive health benefits a woman may anticipate from her breast reduction procedure. Clinical data may also supply marketers with some insight into which patients qualify for a safe, healthy breast reduction procedure and which patients might be at greater risk of surgical complications. All this data may be used to craft and target a marketing message that speaks to breast reduction’s benefits but also ensures that patients make a fully informed, healthy decision.
The Goals of Health Care Marketing
A health care marketing campaign may ultimately focus on one or more of the following objectives:
- Raising a health care organization’s stature, engendering patient trust, and establishing community goodwill
- Drawing new patients to a particular service line (for example, alerting local diabetics about a hospital’s new diabetes care center)
- Retaining patients by reminding them of the need for regular checkups, cancer screenings, and other preventive care
- Raising awareness about a public health issue, such as an infectious disease or an environmental health concern
In other words, a health care marketing campaign’s goal may be to bring in new patients or simply promote general health and public well-being using accurate, informative clinical data.
Why Is Health Care Marketing Important?
Marketing health care isn’t like marketing other consumer products or services. Because of the complexities of patient-centered health care delivery, a more precise and nuanced marketing approach is necessary.
Unique Considerations for Health Care Marketing
Consider a few elements that make health care marketing distinct:
- Demand for services is different. One reason health care marketing is unique is that medical services are often needed urgently and acutely; while some medical procedures are elective, many are not. The health care marketer’s role, then, isn’t always to convince patients that they need a specific procedure, but rather to make them more aware of key signs and symptoms that may necessitate a doctor’s visit.
- Patients don’t always make their health care decisions. Although patients are generally in control of their own treatment decisions, physicians may ultimately have the most say in when, where, and how patients are treated. Often, in health care marketing, physicians are the target of a marketing campaign (for example, a campaign advertising a new medical device).
- Health care can be complicated. Health care services can sometimes be complicated and difficult for patients to conceptualize. One of the challenges marketers face is providing direct and accessible information that gives patients enough clarity to seek further medical counsel as needed.
The Benefits of Health Care Marketing
Why is health care marketing important? It’s important partially because of the complexities, which require a multidisciplinary approach that’s different from conventional marketing. At the same time, an effectively run health care marketing plan can yield numerous benefits for a medical practice, hospital, or other health organization.
Consider a few well-executed health care marketing plan benefits:
- Improved patient engagement. Health care marketing can educate patients, encouraging them to play a more active role in talking with doctors, and making informed decisions about their treatment and care.
- Increased referral rates. Health care marketing can improve patient referral rates, drawing new patients to seek treatment.
- Enhanced community reputation. Good health care marketing often has a strong public relations component. By establishing clinical leadership, practice or hospital can earn more referrals from area doctors or smaller hospitals.
Health Care Marketing Examples
One of the best ways to envision a successful health care marketing campaign is to look at some real-world examples. Several notable health care marketing examples are available.
A health network in Northern California, Sutter Health launched a robust digital advertising campaign in 2019 that directly engaged with the emotional aspect of health care. Specifically, the ads emphasized the “little things” that make the patient experience at Sutter Health so satisfying, including handwritten cards left by nurses. The ads also mentioned the “big things,” including successful surgeries and high standards of clinical excellence. The cumulative effect of these ads was to paint a picture of Sutter Health as a place where patients are cared for on both the medical and personal levels.
Doctors Without Borders
Doctors Without Borders is a nonprofit organization that deploys clinical providers to underserved areas throughout the world. The organization’s shrewd approach to marketing basically entails its clinicians telling their own stories. The Doctors Without Borders website is regularly updated with stories and news from physicians around the world, offering firsthand accounts of the differences they’re making in patients’ lives. Overall, this campaign is most effective for showing donors and supporters direct evidence of the mission they’re supporting.
The Mayo Clinic boasts a social media strategy that allows it to exhibit thought leadership through direct interactions with working physicians. Specifically, the organization hosts online Q&A sessions with physicians from across the country, with those doctors weighing in on the latest research or best practices. Exchanges are marked with hashtags, making it easy for patients or other physicians to locate them and take note of the high-level information being distributed. Through campaigns like this, the Mayo Clinic builds upon its reputation as one of the most health care organizations in the country.
National vs. Local Campaigns
In considering health care marketing examples, noting the key distinction between national and regional campaigns is important. Often, these distinctions come down to varying goals. Look at the Sutter Health ad campaign, which is focused on making patients feel more comfortable trusting their health care needs to a local facility. By contrast, the Doctors Without Borders and Mayo Clinic campaigns are more about establishing a positive reputation in general, not necessarily cultivating local interest so much as gaining the favor of donors or the respect of the medical establishment.
How to Build an Effective Health Care Marketing Strategy
Administrators can use multiple foundational concepts to develop patient-centered health care marketing strategies that reach out to new patients while keeping current patients engaged.
Keep Patients at the Center
One of the preliminary steps in the process is acknowledging what patient-centered health care truly entails. This term denotes the reality that in the American health models, patients are generally in control of their own treatment decisions. Clinicians can inform and advise, but ultimately patients must decide on the action they’ll take. As such, any health care marketing strategy must work to inform and educate patients, empowering them to make smart, confident decisions that are in their own best interests.
A health organization may boast the best doctors, the finest front-office staff, and the most advanced techniques known to medical science, but if patients don’t find it easy to make an appointment and receive care, then all of that is fairly meaningless. For this reason, a robust health care marketing strategy should be based on easy access to care.
This can be achieved in several ways. A health organization can champion the same-day appointments it offers at its clinics or the extended hours for working professionals. Additionally, a marketing message that focuses on telehealth can have a big impact on patients who live in more rural areas or anyone looking for a convenient way to see a doctor.
An important question to ask when developing a health care marketing strategy is: What are some common obstacles to patients getting the attention they need? Often, the most effective health care marketing strategy addresses these obstacles directly. For instance, plastic surgeons may recognize that some patients are anxious due to expectations of pain, swelling, bruising, or a long postoperative recovery time. One of the most effective ways for these surgeons to get patients in the door is to offer reassurances about pain medications or drainless surgical techniques that make that recovery time much more comfortable.
Determine Clear Metrics
With any marketing campaign, having clearly articulated goals is important. This is certainly the case in health care marketing in which health administrators, working with other stakeholders, can determine in advance what they hope to accomplish through their marketing message. Setting quantifiable, measurable metrics makes it easier to see that the marketing campaign is working, to track progress, and to prove return on investment (ROI). Some examples of these quantifiable metrics include the number of physician referrals, social media followers, or daily patient admissions.
Align Marketing to Demographics
A final note about formulating a health care marketing strategy is that aligning the medium and messaging with demographic preferences is always important. For example, a practice that’s looking to build its reputation in the medical community may focus its marketing efforts on webinars or Livestream presentations geared toward other physicians. A clinic looking to spread public health messages to young people may emphasize Instagram or YouTube messaging.
Larger health networks looking to bring in older patients may opt for more traditional TV advertisements, with ads that focus on patient experience and quality of care. The key is to remember that health care marketing isn’t one-size-fits-all; instead, it’s something that should be tailored to the target audience.
Key Health Care Marketing Tactics
Once an overarching health care marketing strategy is in place, the next step is to employ specific tactics that can help achieve marketing goals. Several core health care marketing tactics exist for administrators to consider.
Create a Voice
Part of health care marketing’s mission is to earn the goodwill and trust of both current and potential patients. One way to do that is to ensure that the marketing campaign has a consistent “voice” throughout the marketing collateral: blog posts, tweets, digital videos. For instance, will the voice be casual and friendly, even funny? Will it address medical issues from a position of high-level expertise and authority? Will doctors and nurses have the opportunity to tell their own stories, or will the voice be more independent?
Use Consistent Branding
Consistency is crucial to effective marketing. Everything from the verbiage to color schemes, logos, and font choices should be uniform. This helps tie the marketing assets together and creates a seamless patient experience; it can be reassuring to patients, for example, when they see the same colors and language used in a YouTube ad, on the organization’s website, and in the facility itself. This also helps ensure that any positive associations that patients have with an ad carry over to their actual experience.
Health care marketing tactics should always serve patients’ underlying needs, and that means being honest about procedures, medications, or techniques. Being clear about the risks or side effects that come with certain procedures isn’t counterproductive or self-defeating, nor is noting that some treatments aren’t for everyone. In fact, it can help build patient confidence when a health organization is fully transparent about its policies and procedures and the steps required to qualify patients.
Finally, ensuring that health care marketing tactics are based on data and analytics whenever possible is crucial. Even a small medical practice can use its patient records to get insights into the demographics it should be targeting; if a specific procedure seems especially popular among middle-aged women, for example, that can help the practice define the target audience and craft an effective marketing message. Additionally, community health data (environmental risks, pervasive diseases, or areas where other health providers don’t offer treatment options) can illuminate the procedures or service lines to focus on.
Pursue a Career in Health Administration
Effective marketing can help a health care organization increase its profitability and bolster its reputation; more important, it can help providers and administrators connect their services to the patients who need them.
One way to develop skills in health care marketing is to pursue an advanced degree in health administration. Consider Ohio University’s online Master of Health Administration program, in which students can gain the wide-ranging skills they require to provide effective health care leadership. Specifically, students take courses that include Health Law, Health Care Finance, and Strategic Planning and Marketing in Health Services. To further your career in health administration, learn more about this program’s robust curriculum.