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CHRISTUS Health VP of Strategic Marketing, Preston Gee, discusses the role of marketing, the rise of consumerism, and other critical topics of interest for today’s Healthcare marketing strategist.

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PrestonGee.jpgAlong with steering the strategic marketing function for his system’s 60 hospitals and long-term facilities across six states, Gee has authored several books, including The Service Line Solution: Consumer-Focused Strategies for the Accountable Care Era. He’s also published numerous articles on planning and strategy for every major healthcare publication and is a frequent speaker at national conferences, including the recent Healthcare Marketing & Physician Strategies Summit.

Insight: Talk about where we are today in terms of the “retailization” of health care and how leading strategists/marketers like you are successfully embracing consumerism?

Gee: This is a day that those of us who have been in healthcare marketing and strategy functions for years have long awaited. In health care, and especially in the provider sector, marketing doesn’t have the cachet or clout that it does in other industries like retail or consumer goods. Marketing is in the captain’s chair in other industries, as their focus is on their customers. In health care, marketing can often be about appeasing other stakeholders.

The exciting thing about the rise of consumers in the healthcare marketing field—and health care in general—is that it represents a great opportunity for marketing, strategy, business development, physician relations, and similar disciplines to work together. Specifically, it allows us to have a stronger voice at the table, and it really brings the dynamics of a consumer-driven orientation to the healthcare sector. That’s a good thing. It has worked marvelously for virtually every other industry in America, and I’m quite confident it will work in health care.

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Insight: What are some ways you’re addressing the “rise of the consumer” at CHRISTUS Health?

Gee: What we’re doing reflects the hallmarks of leading market-driven organizations, irrespective of the industry: We’re looking to consumers to really drive the business. Rather than being an insider-based organization with an insular focus, we’re becoming more focused on what I call the “consumer/patient.” Some people don’t like the term “consumer,” but in reality the people who turn to us for care are consumers before they are patients.

In light of this, one of the things we’re doing is borne out of my background as a research analyst in the consumer goods industry. I’m a big believer in research. Much of the research we do in health care tends to be affirmative rather than informative. It’s not upstream enough—not enough of a deep dive. We’ve recently conducted business intelligence, or competitive assessments, which are old hat to retail and consumer-driven markets that have been doing this type of research for decades. In the healthcare provider sector, there’s not as much ‘deep diving’ with consumers to find out what’s most important to them in their decision-making process. In our industry, we keep it high-level and focus on brand awareness and preference rather than ask, “What is it that matters most to you?”

This has been very illuminating by uncovering ways we can apply learnings in our messaging and operational initiatives. As an example, we’ve discovered that what matters most to consumers are what we might call the “soft” or emotional considerations. For instance, consumers care about how attentive the staff is and how coordinated they are. Some of the things we typically spend time promoting like advanced technology, sophistication of devices, awards, or accreditations … those are far down the priority list for consumers. We’re in many markets and multiple states and have learned that what matters most to consumers is pretty consistent. It has been really insightful for us and other senior executives to learn that consumers may not be thinking we need shiny new buildings or state-of-the-art technology.

Some of the things we typically spend time promoting like advanced technology, sophistication of devices, awards, or accreditations … those are far down the priority list for consumers.

Our research yielded another fascinating insight that illustrates the increasing power of consumers. Historically, physicians have had significant influence over where the patient goes for treatment. That has diminished over time, and we’ve found that was quite far down the list at first. However, after a deeper dive we discovered that consumers still connect with physicians based on recommendations and then seek out other sources before making a decision. This was very insightful and speaks to the emerging clout, power, and involvement of the modern healthcare consumer. Again, this reflects the importance of the patient experience and the fact that people are consumers before they become patients.

Another area where the rise of the consumer has really changed the game involves working with agencies. If you’re working with an agency that still has the “Mad Men” approach that emphasizes creative execution over strategy, that will not work anymore. Marketers have to understand what the consumer expects and message accordingly, and consequently agencies have to have a strong research component and strategic mind set to compete in today’s environment.

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Insight: How is CHRISTUS addressing population health?

Gee: We have recently hired a seasoned executive to lead that effort for us [Ruth Krystopolski, SVP of Population Health at CHRISTUS Health]. We’re putting a lot of emphasis on population health and investing significant resources in that area as it’s a high priority and we believe it’s the right way to go—and we’ve made some good strides. For example, we’ve created a multi-function, interdisciplinary group and have introduced Medicare Shared Savings Programs and created Medical Homes in some of the communities we serve.

When it comes to managing population health, what’s often missing is that organizations don’t realize the value and significance of the market-facing functions, particularly marketing. I’ve long been interested in the convergence of consumerism and accountable care, and those typically aren’t mentioned in the same paragraph as they’re not viewed as intersecting. I think the commonality in both of those concepts is the individual, which is why it’s so important to have market-facing functions involved in the conversation.

As marketers, we know how to communicate with people at the individual level. We’ve got the messaging down with insights generated by Customer Relationship Management, predictive analytics, and algorithms. Now with population health, you’re taking those same messages once used to promote services and using them to inform and educate consumers on the services available and to better manage their health.

When you have clinical experts working in concert with marketing and strategy to understand how to communicate with consumers to provide individualized information—that’s the right approach. Organizations that take that approach to population health will have a leg up on ones that keep the clinical and marketing functions in silos.

We’re not exactly on the vanguard in health care when compared to organizations in other industries that really understand their customers. Once they get a customer in their community, they know how to communicate with the appropriate message that matters to him or her. It’s not a shotgun approach; rather, the message is very customized. It’s the same thing with population health, and perhaps even more so. By understanding the interests of the individual, we can use great messaging tools and applications—whether gamification, digital communication, or other tools—to ensure the message is hyper targeted to each unique consumer.

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Insight: How does the marketing function in health care compare to marketing in other industries you’ve served?

Gee: Marketing in most industries is a leading function as it goes beyond messaging and promotion and represents the customer/consumer. In the same way, healthcare marketers should have a deep understanding of the customer based on research and therefore own (or at least co-own) the patient experience. Marketing should inform and drive operations, which is often in a silo. That’s been the missing link on the provider side.

When in a competitive field, marketing says, “This is what the customer expects and this is the experience we have to deliver.” I learned this from my experience at Fisher Price, where we had as much clout as anybody at the table—more so than pricing, engineering, and other disciplines. We did the research and came back and said, “It’s too expensive … it doesn’t function well … here are the customer expectations.” When you have someone representing the patient well and delivering those kinds of insights, you have a seat at the executive table. If marketing is not in the C-suite, that will never happen.

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