October 8, 2015

When Operations and the Patient Experience Collide

One thing I have noticed while working with health system marketing VP’s is that many of their professional relationships could be summarized with the infamous Facebook relationship status: It’s complicated.

One reason it’s so complicated is that a health care marketer must constantly make promises to patients. You are on the airwaves and their digital screens touting your unique patient benefits and amazing outcomes. But…you must rely completely on your colleagues to keep these promises. On the flip side, your department heads often feel (however unjustifiable these feelings may be) they are neglected and are clamoring for a little marketing love.

Complicated relationships come when marketing and operations collide. Your service line leaders beg for marketing help—yet sometimes you must worry if they are actually ready for the volume they are asking for.

Screenings are one example. Whether it is mammography, colonoscopy or a CT lung scan, screenings offer a clear call-to-action and they deliver patients to the front end of the pipeline. Everyone should be happy.

But what experience do these precious prospects have once they hit those doors?

If we pause on that moment, we can see what a grand opportunity this really is. Perhaps for years, we have been trying to get Mrs. Janet B. Prospect to this moment. We’ve put print ads in her favorite magazines, we’re in her head trying to predict her Google searches, we have even sprung for a few TV spots—all just to get her to engage our brand.

Finally she’s here. That last direct mail piece finally pushed her over the edge and she trusts us with her mammogram. But those doors are the place where the promises of advertising end and the real brand experience begins.

We promised a caring and intimate environment, but there was nobody at the door to greet her.

We promised a short appointment. She spent 20 minutes just checking-in to our antiquated system.

We promised it would be easy. She got lost on the way to imaging.

We promised to set her mind at ease. But her radiologist barely answered her questions—and she left confused.

She might leave her screening and meet a close friend for lunch. We all know she’s going to talk about her experience—and we will have effectively spent thousands of dollars simply to irritate our prospect and flood the marketplace with bad word-of-mouth reviews.

Should the service line leader be blamed? Perhaps.

But we know that the vast majority of service line leaders are smart, dedicated professionals who have the same goals you do. They want your patients to enjoy the best outcomes and experiences. They probably have at least a couple of decades of service under their belts, and let’s face it—hospitals have really only started to address the patient experience over the past few years. This dynamic new marketplace is forcing these good people to look at their operations in ways they never have had to before.

As health care marketers and the champions of our brands, the onus actually falls on us to help these colleagues look at marketing beyond the advertising and into the end state: which is the patient experience.

The next time that service line leader complains of marketing support, this is less of an opportunity to be defensive and more of an opportunity to open up some dialog about what marketing really is and how we can empower each other to deliver on our promises.

The best thing about focusing on the patient experience in these discussions is that this is an area where we actually have some control.

We can staff an extra volunteer to greet Janet.

We can ask our IT staff to streamline the check-in process for outpatient services.

We can review our signage and way finding before a campaign.

We can ensure our clinicians are held more accountable for their patient experiences.

Some of these opportunities for change won’t come overnight. However, when you have another voice (especially one from operations) rattling more cages for help, change becomes more possible. Of course you need to apply a smart level of diplomacy. You don’t want to convey that someone’s department is too messed up to drive prospects to it. You simply want to ensure it is at its best so that any success sparks even more success as word of mouth recommendations do some work for us.

The key to improving complicated relationships is to keep talking. Nearly every marketing VP I have met is convinced that at least one of their professional relationships is the most dysfunctional in the industry. In reality, these types of collisions are normal and if they spark real dialog about your patient experience—they’re even healthy for the organization.

There’s another effect on your relationships when you start with the patient experience. You’re actually elevating the value of your department. We all have budget limitations and we know this means we can only talk about so many areas of the organization. Why not ensure we are only talking about those areas that deliver the best patient experience? Who is ready to fulfill the promises you are asking me to make? This point-of-view will foster your reputation as less of “our advertising people” and more as a respected strategic thinker.

Look for opportunities to turn a whining colleague into an ally that can help foster real changes. These are the type of changes that can set you up for more sustainable success. We know that the only thing worse than going dark on advertising is driving prospects to a place that isn’t ready to keep our promises. Once your colleagues start to understand this, you’ll have fewer relationships classified as “it’s complicated” and many more truly beneficial working partnerships that breed healthy volumes and happier patients.