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In Defense of Hospital Ad Spending

Marianne Aiello, for HealthLeaders Media, December 19, 2012

Hospital advertising has long been an easy target, from both internal and external critics. It seems that whenever it's time for a healthcare organization to tighten its belt, the marketing team and its budget takes the biggest hit.

And yet, the media and general public decry the fact that a hospital needs to promote itself at all.

It's funny—for being professionals geared around boosting their organizations' brands, hospital marketers are hard pressed to enhance their own reputations.

Every once in a while—this month, for example—a slew of media criticisms are published in short succession, reporting on the thousands or millions of dollars hospitals spend on advertising while failing to mention the percentage of the total organizational budget that it accounts for.

Normally, we grin and bear it and move on. Not this time.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently published an article dissecting its competitive healthcare market. While the reporting is balanced, it starts with a markedly negative tone by quoting Sidney Wolfe, director of the non-profit consumer advocacy group, Public Citizen.

"Hospitals seem to be spending money left and right trying to get more patients," he said. "Absent significant costs controls, there's nothing to stop them. It's siphoning money away from healthcare. Advertising shouldn't be confused with taking care of patients or improving patient care."

I think we can all agree that his last sentence isn't worth addressing. But in this column I will explain why, in the vast majority of hospitals, advertising and marketing spending is necessary, effective, and does not take away from quality of care.

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3 comments on "In Defense of Hospital Ad Spending"


Erick Kinuthia (12/24/2012 at 1:30 AM)
Good document.Use of social media in marketing of medical services remains to be important. Erick Kinuthia Team MDwebpro.com

Jeff Cole (12/19/2012 at 8:08 PM)
The problem with the pro-marketing argument is that - with the exception of emergency care - the vast majority of patients do not choose the hospital in which they are treated. We all have to go the hospital where out doctor has privileges. In Wisconsin, each hospital chain is buying up medical practices. There are very few independent physicians left. The doctors who work for the chains have to send their patients to their employers' facilities. So what good does it do for a hospital to advertise? There is choosing which hospital one can go to.

Charles F (12/19/2012 at 5:15 PM)
I believe we are less than three years from seeing the end of this debate. Currently, healthcare advertising is service line oriented, simply because that is how nearly all hospitals break down their budgets. And it makes sense from their business perspective, since adding a specialist in one field means the hospital needs to generate revenue in that field to maximize their investment. But, as I understand it, as healthcare reform takes hold and each hospital's revenue model changes, marketing will shift toward finding patients (the healthier the better) to, quite simply, keep healthy. Hospitals won't advertise knee replacements because doing so may cost them money. The referral network will be the driver for specialized services, and traditional advertising efforts will be aimed at attracting people who want to stay healthy, and providing them with the tools, networks and knowledge to stay healthy.