More than two decades ago, two industry colleagues, Nancy Hicks and Amy Ziegenfuss, suggested we publish a book dedicated to health branding! Aspen Publication jumped on the idea, and we collaborated with great minds from leading non-profit organizations and global health and healing centers. Branding Health Service — Defining Yourself in the Marketplace was among the very first — if not the first — book published on the business of health care marketing and the value of a brand.
[Though now out of print, used copies are available on Amazon at an incredible price range of $599 to $9.99. The full text is a free-of-charge Google download, Branding Health Services.]
Today’s Leaders Continue to Grapple with the Broken System
It is almost impossible to imagine that when the book’s 18 contributors penned their chapters, the Internet of 2000 was a novelty used by early adopters. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, which outlined a plan to ensure that most Americans had electronic health records, didn’t exist. “Dr. Google” had yet to become a code word for consumers looking up information for “self-diagnosis.” The world Eric Topol envisioned in the bestseller “The Patient Will See You Now” was pure science fiction. The system’s customer — the patient — was left out of the picture. Terms defined in Tom Lawry’s Hacking Healthcare and the potential of AI and ChatGPT outlined by John Nosta were not even on the big tech brainstorming whiteboard.
Fast forward 24 years. Medical information and innovation accelerate the possibilities of improved care, but health institutions still grapple with many of the same challenges. Many have been folded into others to create networks, gobbling each other up or finding that partnerships are better than head-to-head direct competition. Those arrangements have likely been driven by cost containment and more substantial negotiating power around private and public payer reimbursement. Yet, the importance of patient experience and engagement remains largely lip service.
You Can Order a Pizza Online — But Make A Doctor Appointment?
You can order a pizza with a few strokes of an app. Try scheduling or changing a doctor’s appointment. Frustrating. In Psychology Today, John Nosta writes about one of the health system’s biggest challenges, “Culture squashes innovation.” What was true 24 years ago remains much the same — even as hospital and care systems rush to perfect their digital front door and make it easier for patients to access care.
The institutions that chose to contribute to this prescient book on branding evolved into national health-sector leaders. Unsurprisingly, most are icons of clinical excellence by securing high levels of patient satisfaction. They are among the top-rated hospitals in the US News and World Report rankings. All make “brand building” relationships with their stakeholders — board members, employees, consumers, patients, caregivers, policymakers, product innovators, and payers — a C-Suite priority.
However, others continue to see sustained brand-building efforts as a cost center rather than core to attracting and retaining the best health talent, securing solid reimbursement rates, and, most importantly, making consumers, as they enter its portals and doors, feel confident their clinical concerns will be addressed with expertise and customer-centered convenience. The experience around care defines the power of the brand in health care.
Medicine is for the People — Still a Futuristic Calling
In the closing pages of the chapter, I contributed a reminder that we are still — even as enlightened — committed health professionals — struggling to create space for the consumers’ voices to be heard. Today, I am reminded that pharma pioneer and visionary George W. Merck, speaking at the Medical College of Virginia at Richmond in 1950, said, “We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we remember that, they have never failed to appear.” Constantly, we must look back to press forward.
Health care is for the people! The system is supposedly designed to provide care — not withhold it. But, when consumers look back at the 24 years since Branding Health Brands was published and look at their situations, today, health care seems to be created by and for the system. Institutions and drug innovators are inspired to help and heal, but that is not how the public and policymakers perceive them. Now, as we look to Election 2024 and the upcoming presidential debates that will chastise the sector, we anticipate the brutal attacks that will be coming. But not one segment of the system is at fault — The most significant cost sink results from fragmented information and economic systems.
(Health) Information is Power
Do not judge this old jug of a book published two decades before Topol’s bestseller, The Patient Will See You Now, as out-of-sync. Its pages contain actionable historical insight:
“Once even the ablest of patients played a version of ‘Mother May I?’ with their doctors — no more. Information in the hands of the lay public has become part of the cure. Even many health care providers now feel, in a twist on the retailing come-on, that an educated health care consumer is their best patient. Indeed, for every provider irked at the second-guessing of amateurs, others [physicians and pharmacists] are grateful not to have to explain the difference between bacterial and viral infections…
“More and more, information is the weapon of choice of today’s health care consumers, who are shedding light where bureaucratic stonewalling and professional secrecy once ruled. Empowering the ‘end users’ of health care as never before.”
The passion to continue this journey is more vibrant than ever. Today, health communication colleagues worldwide must champion the call that embracing health brands leads to closer connections between product innovators, physicians, payers, policymakers, and, most certainly, patients. They must be encouraged to realize that — while too often messaging C-Suite leaders to pass along blame on why the US health system is broken — they must also find ways to collaborate and center efforts around a shared passion for healing that outweighs who comes out on top on a given day.
Will AI, ChatGPT and Telehealth Make Things Better
In the face of many health brand-building reputation challenges, power brands solve people’s health problems. With new platforms to reach audiences, including AI, ChatGPT, and Telehealth, in truth, brands streamline decision-making. Excellence and hope are not disparate concepts. Together, they send a message to consumers, caregivers, and patients — you have come to the right place.
Since its publication, 24 years have passed, yet the challenges and call-to-action presented in “Branding Health Services” have not changed. “Products and services that can rise above the clutter withstand the klieg lights of exposure and are elevated above others in the hype-competition for consumers’ attention.” Health brands resolve people’s fears and aggregate their hopes and dreams, helping them navigate the clutter to enhance their lives.
Twenty-four years have passed since Branding Health Services — Defining Yourself in the Marketplace hit the bookshelves. We have to ask ourselves candidly, how far have we gone to address the patients’ pressing needs to be a partner in their care? Not far enough!