The twist in healthcare marketing

At first glance, healthcare marketing contains a conundrum: you’re marketing a dream of perfect health, yet you don’t want your customers to have it.

After all, doctors and hospitals make money by seeing patients, conducting diagnoses, and performing treatments. Healthy people don’t spend much time in hospitals. Healthy people are unprofitable people.

Based on this premise, healthcare marketing should be all about the fun things in life. Your local hospital would run campaigns exhorting the thrills of dangerous driving and how great it is to end your day with a dose of the dragon and a borrowed needle. (That’s your orthopaedics and liver disease clinics filled right there.)

You’d have surgeries hosting the All-Britain Binge Drinking Championships and offering free rotgut to all comers. Hospitals would have unfussy street prostitutes on standby for whenever the STD clinics looked a bit barren. Savvy young marketers would ‘accidentally’ ensure well-off residential streets were well strewn with broken glass and strange chemicals.

And the greatest campaign of all would involve a containerload of sharp rusty objects, a spraycan of Ebola, and a crowded High Street.

Hey, it’s ultimately no different to bars offering free nuts. To keep ’em consuming, you’ve got to keep ’em thirsty.

However, there’s a flaw in the above, related to second-order effects: the healthiest people are also the most likely to go in for the treatments with the highest profit margin.

The ideal patients at the small private hospitals that insurers use are affluent ABC1s who visit their doctors regularly, squeeze their soft parts anxiously for signs of lumps, research every tabloid health finding on the web, and don’t stay out in the sun too long. They’ll detox for a week after every night out and have every funny mole excised.

These people will be up for any treatment a doctor recommends, whether it’s vital, useful, or merely precautionary, as long as they know about it.

Owning this demographic is basically a license to stick a vacuum pump in their pockets and suck until all you get is lint.

So the real goal of healthcare marketing is, conversely, to keep people neither well nor unwell, but better-informed.

A marketing programme that put together the right triumvarate of information – medical research, statistical demographic analysis, and trends over time – might pick up ten million customers in its first five years, because it’d be free. Call it “The Hundred-Year Plan” for living a long and healthy life, little treatments and surgical procedures every year or two instead of a couple of big ones whammoing into your calendar and changing the course of your life.

Maybe it’d be a CRM programme, based on some concept like “The Ideal Man” and showing you quarterly how close you are to the ideal. It’d be informed by data like the average mortality rate and disease profile for people of your social background in your geographic area. Your life would become a game of getting close to the ideal. Healthcare would be seen as a lifestyle, not an intervention.

You could even tie things up with a major supermarket chain. A line of fresh veg and fruity Ready Meals made fresh that day, maybe with extra vitamins and minerals mixed in instead of sauces and salt sachets, selling consistently because the supermarket knows exactly how many people will buy them.

Your phone pings one Monday. “It’s 8am. Shove a slice of watermelon up your ass for ten minutes. This will reduce your chances of rectal whateveritis by 50% (click here for statistics). Next reminder: 4 weeks. To book a consultation on rectal whateveritis for just £150, click here.”

And: “Click here to buy a watermelon.

I can’t see a single insurer playing this game effectively. (I mean the game of turning healthcare into a managed relationship, not the game of shoving melons up your ass – fun as that might be to some.) And very few hospital chains.

Market health in the right way, and you end up with the most profitable customers of all: the “worried well” who are keen to maintain health and who are most likely to seek genuine information and preventive/elective treatments at their hospitals. Preventive/elective surgery is the most profitable, and insurers are happy to pay for it, since such work makes their customers less in need of major (unprofitable) treatments later.

Seen in this way, healthcare marketing’s about the best form of marketing you can do: genuinely trying to do the right thing for your customers. Hmmm, I wonder who’s going to do it?

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