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White Coat Syndrome: Why Marketing Professionals Have It and How to Cure It

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer
alan shoebridge

Alan Shoebridge

[Healthcare Success Podcast] Hospital marketing professionals are not immune to a form of “white coat syndrome.” It’s the somewhat common phenomenon where patients exhibit elevated blood pressure in a clinical visit—but not in other settings—due to anxiety of being face-to-face with the doctor.

Similarly in healthcare marketing, communications professionals can be nervous talking with physicians about marketing, according to Alan Shoebridge, Director of Physician and Clinical Marketing and Communications at  Providence Health & Services in Oregon.

In this installment in our continuing series of healthcare industry podcasts, Alan talked with Healthcare Success Co-Founder Lonnie Hirsch about how marketing professionals—himself and members of his team—can identify and overcome the “syndrome” in order to relate to doctors on a professional level and work comfortably with them on marketing matters.

To understand this, consider that many physicians “get frustrated with marketing,” he said, “because when they ask you about marketing, sometimes there’s not a definitive answer.

“Physicians like evidence-based [answers] and are science-focused in their work. But marketing is not a hard science…it’s a soft science, and there’s a portion of physicians who do not react well to that. There are other physicians who don’t feel that marketing is really appropriate. It’s not what they got into medicine to do, they don’t think they need to be on a billboard, and they don’t want to do it. And then there’s another category [of physician] who understand marketing, but they can be frustrated with us when we don’t have clear answers and strategies.”

Doctors are often rooted in a task-oriented world with specific answers based in science, while marketing is very different from that, Alan explained. And that sets up a relationship that’s a little bit difficult…and creates a potential for white coat apprehension on the marketing side of the table.

The cure for white coat syndrome…

In Lonnie’s conversation with Alan, you’ll hear that there is an answer…and the cure for any white coat symptoms. “The way we try to approach our conversations about marketing is to be armed with data. You need to know about your market place, your market share, and you need to know about your patients...all based on research.

Doctors respond to conversations that are based on knowing about the competition, having an evidence-based response, and knowing about what works well in marketing. "They’ll support that because they have something to back it up—and that’s a key thing that marketers need to do.”

In addition, our recorded conversation between Alan Shoebridge and Lonnie Hirsch included additional insights about hospital marketing and Providence Health & Services:

  • The Providence online patient community, and using that feedback to help physicians understand differences between their perceptions and patient perceptions.
  • Positioning internal marketing to patients by doctors as an integral component of proactive population health management.
  • The most important concept that healthcare marketers and C-suite executives can communicate to physicians to help them get on board with the importance of marketing.

Lonnie HirschCo-Founder of Healthcare Success

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Alan Shoebridge - Director of Physician and Clinical Marketing and Communications with Providence Health & Services, which is Oregon’s largest health care system with more than 17,000 employees and 600 employed physicians. Alan’s current role focuses on marketing plan development, advertising, messaging, research and other areas. He has more than 10 years of direct marketing and communications experience for health care and medical insurance organizations. 

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