Calling All High-Value Patients

Marianne Aiello, for HealthLeaders Media , June 10, 2010
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Targeting the right patients is a must-have business strategy for any marketing department.

High-value patients are notoriously difficult to identify, target, and hold on to; definitions vary, messaging can be intricate, and keeping patients is often out of the marketing department's hands. However, each of these elements is essential to any successful marketing initiative.

Identifying strategic patients
The definition of a high-value patient varies depending on an organization's current business goals. It may mean a patient with insurance, a patient who may use a service line that requires growth, or a patient who has been treated before and may need follow-up care—or even all three.

"The critical thing is to identify who the high-value patients are and what strategic direction you wanted to take with them," says Jeff Miller, assistant vice president of marketing for MedStar Health, a nine-hospital system based in Columbia, MD. "The key first step in the process for us was to meet with each individual hospital and determine what their business goals were and then determine what the high-value patient meant to those business goals."

MedStar decided to focus its efforts on ED patients who were not admitted and inpatients who presented with a visit to key service lines. It did this by launching a targeted direct mail campaign, a common method for reaching out to high-value patients.

For DeKalb Medical, a three-hospital system based in Atlanta, direct mail was an easy choice both because of its ability to target specific populations and as an alternative to the expensive local media market.

"It's very wasteful because I can't zone in the way I really need to," says Terri Whitesel, director of corporate communications for the health system. "I could easily spend $50,000 to $60,000 a week and not get there—and with today's budgets that's not practical."

DeKalb used direct mail to drive patients to its mammography and GI service lines, resulting in a $5 to $10 and $10 to $20 return on investment, respectively, for every $1 spent.

Tailoring the right message
Both MedStar and DeKalb use CRM software to segment the patient population and craft the correct messages for each audience.

"The CRM allows us to speak directly to specific audiences in different ways," Whitesel says. "Part of that process also is that we know that in addition to all these other filters we also are only talking to those people who have medical insurance—and we have income qualification there, too. I'm narrowing the funnel from a cost-effective standpoint so we're not having a lot of waste. By minimizing the waste we have a higher return and are obviously saving money. It's the filtering and the segmentation that allows us to go after the high-end customer."

The segmentation allows DeKalb to alter the message by age, ethnicity, gender, and incident rate. For example, a young woman who has yet to have a mammogram will receive a different postcard than an older woman who had a mammogram years ago but hasn't returned. The imagery changes for each target audience, as well.

Timing is also an important element when reaching out to targeted, high-value patients, Miller says.

"You need to continue to put yourself in the shoes of the patient and know that the piece will be arriving 30, 40, or 50 days after their initial visit," he says. "You've got to identify what would be the most timely message in their hands at that point in time."

Building on targeted success
A successful high-value patient campaign never ends because consistent communication keeps those patients coming back.

MedStar has launched in four of its Baltimore-area hospitals a more aggressive targeted campaign to drive in new patients by promoting educational seminars, classes, and other community events.

"We're trying to identify individuals who may not have a relationship with our hospital or may [have] just popped up on our radar," Miller says. "We're trying to start a more comprehensive dialogue with them."

DeKalb Medical has recently launched a targeted orthopedics campaign and holds regular focus groups with new patients to learn what they're doing well and what could be improved.

"It's all about the entire experience from the beginning to the end and trying to build the program to support all the efforts of the direct mail marketing that we're doing," Whitesel says. "Otherwise, we may get them in, but we lose them if the product doesn't deliver on the promise."

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