ALEXANDRIA, VaAs cancer care increasingly shifts from inpatient to outpatient services and consumers use the Internet to educate themselves about their disease and their options, cancer programs must concentrate more carefully on marketing themselves as the answer to potential patients needs, said Patti Jamieson, MSSW, MBA, service line administrator for oncology, University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center.
Speaking at the 25th Annual Meeting of the Association of Community Cancer Centers (ACCC), Ms. Jamieson emphasized the extreme importance of each center understanding its market and its strengths, and creating a marketing plan that successfully differentiates it from its competition.
Devise a Market Niche
The extensive data now available on cancer programs and outcomes allow marketing executives to analyze their own and competing institutions in order to discover their strengths and devise a particular market niche, she said.
Also crucial is an understanding of the values important to potential patients. Ms. Jamieson said that focus groups run by skilled facilitators can uncover the issues that really count. In one case, for example, administrators thought that decor and other amenities played an important role in patient satisfaction.
Focus groups revealed, however, that patients paid little attention to such details and placed their heaviest emphasis on having easy access to their physicians and to others on the health care staff.
Although in small communities physician referrals play the major role in the choice of a cancer program, in large metropolitan centers with several nearby competing institutions, patients often actively investigate the alternatives. In this case, a strong, consistently communicated image can serve to differentiate one program from another in the consumers mind.
This image should emphasize one or more of the programs strongest features, such as outstanding outcomes, compassionate care, or convenience, Ms. Jamieson suggested. Logos, symbols, and messages repeated in all advertising, educational publications, and other materials help to build brand identity, she said, adding that building or changing such a brand image takes at least 1 to 2 years of consistent advertising.
Effective methods of spreading a cancer programs message include database marketing, which allows advertising particular products and services to selected segments of the local community. A website designed to coordinate with the message can also be useful, she said, although fewer than 15% of health care institutions currently have a strategy for use of their websites.
A telephone information center or hotline can also serve as a vehicle for one-to-one marketing, she noted, but only if the call center staff have accurate, up-to-date information to offer on the phone as well as materials to send out to callers. Consumer newsletters are another very popular marketing tool.
Emphasis on Service
Providing the patient a positive experience is the key to successful marketing, Ms. Jamieson said. In this area, health care institutions have much to learn from retail businesses. Standards of service, enforced throughout the institution, can improve the patient experience, but instituting them requires that the institutional culture support them.
Retail businesses practice of searching out unfilled market niches and unmet needs can also help differentiate a cancer program, she said. One institution, for example, provides a daycare center where patients can leave their children while undergoing outpatient treatments.
The emphasis on excellent service must also extend to the centers relationships with its referring physicians, Ms. Jamieson said. All referring doctors should receive fast responses to their queries and rapid and complete reports on their patients treatments, she said. Maintaining their confidence requires keeping them completely up-to-date on the progress of their patients.