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Whatcha Gonna Do When Hospital Advertising Goes Sour?

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

Red "Fail" keyboard key and green "Pass" keyboard key on keyboardLet’s hope you never back into a buzz saw of “unintended consequences.” That’s when seemingly ordinary events inexplicably spin over to the dark side.

It doesn’t happen often, but here’s a roundup of three recent and unrelated news reports that went from sweet to sour. What’s your reaction to these items, and what would you do if this mess landed in your PR lap?

What if advertising Emergency Room wait times was outlawed?

SWEET: Many hospitals in the State of Louisiana (and throughout the United States) routinely advertise the estimated wait times for Emergency Room services at various medical facilities. Among many benefits, the general public is the primary beneficiary in knowing where medical services are most immediately available, particularly when the need is urgent.

SOUR: A Louisiana State Representative introduced proposed legislation that would “prohibit hospitals who accept certain types of Medicaid funds from advertising using billboards, signs, light, paintings and a variety of other methods,” reports The Times-Picayune newspaper. The lawmaker “believes hospitals are encouraging people to use the emergency room for non-emergency needs through advertisements."

The bill has been referred to committee where it evidently faces strong opposition and questions of infringing on free speech rights.

What if there was a fee to be listed among ‘the best hospitals’?

SWEET: There are hundreds of online hospital and physician listing, rating and ranking systems…and clearly some are better than others as guidance to the consumer’s service selection process. This example is from the International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ) Your facility may not be involved in global medical tourism, but healthcare ratings are in everyone’s backyard.

SOUR: “Some hospitals have been advertising that they have been chosen as ‘one of the best hospitals for medical tourism in the world’ by the Diplomatic Council.” But, the IMTJ says, “All is not what it first seems. There is a catch; each hospital listed has to pay a substantial annual fee.” The fee depends on the size of the facility; from € 25,000 to € 40,000.

The IMTJ publication concludes that the Diplomatic Council that provides the paid listings “appears to be little more than a global marketing group for hospitals and clinics.”

What if advertising your “institutional expertise” ignites an ethical firestorm?

SWEET: Robotic surgery—specifically the well-known da Vinci brand—is widely promoted by hospitals as a statement of patient benefit and evidence of surgical expertise and technological advancement.

SOUR: “When the makers of the da Vinci surgical robot asked University of Illinois doctors to appear in a national advertising campaign, their Chicago hospital saw an opportunity to promote its expertise with the device,” the Chicago Tribune reported. “But the plan backfired. Instead of gaining national publicity for being leaders in robotic surgery, the doctors and the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System are under scrutiny for endorsing a commercial product, a possible violation of U. of I. policy.”

The ad, sponsored by Intuitive Surgical Inc., was criticized on many particulars. But a cornerstone issue is that a hospital promoting its own expertise is fair territory, provided that it pays for the advertisement, and is not an industry endorsement.

Let us know what you think. Have you ever had to respond to a public relations flare-up? We welcome your comments.

FOR RELATED READING see: Hospital Public Relations: When Really Nasty News Hits the Fan and Barbers of Civility: An Unkind Hospital Public Relations Problem That Affects Everything.

Lonnie Hirsch

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