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The Painful Question is: Should Hospitals Advertise?

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

Stead Family Children’s HospitalNot long ago, The Des Moines Register published an interesting opinion piece about hospitals that advertise. We’d like to know what you think about their coverage titled: Hospitals spend millions luring patients away from each other. Please take a minute to review their editorial handiwork and register your own opinion in the space below.

Curiously, this in-depth article seems to be a “good news/bad news” write-up. The centerpiece is the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC) impressive new Stead Family Children’s Hospital. On one hand, it weighs in as a point-with-pride feature write-up that champions “awareness of the new facility not only in Iowa, but Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin.” That's the good part. Hospital administrators and communications professionals would be proud.

On the other hand, The Register takes a broad swing at the idea of hospitals advertising at all. Specifically, they observe that the hospital system is spending $3.7 million to promote the new facility. The UIHC campaign features a fictional, children’s “news team” and “Aktion News” website.

In a no-so-friendly way, the editorial then asks: “But are these ads helping parents make informed choices about their children’s health care, or do they simply advance the interests of the state’s largest public hospital?” As an outside observation, one might wonder if “helping parents make informed choices” is a mainstay among the interests of this or any hospital?

Further, the editorial points to statistics regarding increases in advertising spending by hospitals and healthcare...with one study concluding that messages are "typically 'emotional' and of little use to patients."

The editorial continues, “Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the advertising of pharmaceuticals, it doesn’t regulate hospital advertising. With health care costs spiraling out of control, and hospitals spending millions to simply lure patients away from each other, that may need to change.” (Hint: FDA should regulate hospital advertising.)

What would “regulated hospital advertising” look like? Is advertising consumer-informative, educational. Or, unregulated (as the editorial suggests), does it "encourage patients to seek inappropriate treatment?" Some observers tell us that $14 billion (nationwide hospital advertising) out of $3 trillion in general advertising per year might mean that hospitals are under-spending in marketing.

So…what do you think? Let us know if hospitals that advertise are doing a good job at informing the consumer public, or are they mainly intent on taking business for the sake of growth? Do hospitals, or other healthcare entities, present deceptive or misleading statistics? And what about the FDA? Should a federal agency set standards and/or regulate hospital advertising? What’s your take on this?

And, apropos of nothing at all, does The Des Moines Register have an advertising budget that it uses to increase market share over its competition? And one might wonder if the newspaper sales executives are envious of the big slice of the UIHC ad budget going to digital, online promotion?

And in the interest of full disclosure, Healthcare Success is a full-service agency devoted exclusively to healthcare marketing where we help hospitals to reach, educate and inform the public. Contact us by phone or video conference to explore the possibilities. 800-656-0907

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