Your Strengths, Market’s Demands Dictate Marketing Strategies

Oncology NEWS International Vol 8 No 6, Volume 8, Issue 6

ALEXANDRIA, Va-Successfully marketing a cancer program requires careful targeting of a campaign to fit the particular characteristics of the local market, the competition, the patient base, and the center itself, said a panel of oncology executives representing institutions covering the gamut of size, location, and involvement in managed care.

ALEXANDRIA, Va—Successfully marketing a cancer program requires careful targeting of a campaign to fit the particular characteristics of the local market, the competition, the patient base, and the center itself, said a panel of oncology executives representing institutions covering the gamut of size, location, and involvement in managed care.

Whether an institution should focus on high-profile community activities, a telephone information service, outreach and screening programs, or convenience features depends on what kind of patients come to the center and why, the panelists said at the Association of Community Cancer Centers annual meeting.

Building Local Loyalty

Richard F. Roberts, director of the Oncology Service Line, Columbus Regional Hospital, Columbus, Indiana, said that his hospital, a small, not-for-profit institution in a small rural community, has been only minimally affected by managed care and the nearest competition is in cities at least 50 miles away. To induce patients to seek treatment near their homes rather than in Louisville or Indianapolis, he emphasized the importance of referrals by local physicians and active educational outreach through community events and institutions.

Also on the panel was Tracy S. Dougherty, MBA, senior director of development, the Don & Sybil Harrington Cancer Center, Amarillo, Texas, a center that serves a geographically large, and largely rural, area.

Ms. Dougherty focuses major attention on local physicians as well as on high-profile education-cum-fundraising-cum-social events such as the Susan G. Komen “Race for the Cure” in a strategy to build loyalty to the center, raise funds, and persuade patients to choose local treatment over travel to M.D. Anderson.

For example, Ms. Dougherty described a volunteer organization called “Circle of Friends” that has chapters in a number of towns surrounding Amarillo. This organization holds periodic parties that raise as much as $20,000 each for Harrington. Ms. Dougherty attends each party, along with Harrington’s president, staff physicians, and other center staff members.

Proceeds help needy patients with such expenses as mortgage payments, gasoline to come to treatments, and reimbursement for the time of family members who miss work to accompany patients for treatment.

In addition, Har-rington runs educational programs to raise awareness of reproductive and other cancers among the area’s large, and in many cases underserved, Hispanic and African-American populations.

“One of the center’s most successful educational programs,” she said, “is the ‘Red Book,’ a volume explaining chemotherapy and other treatments that is individualized for each patient and used in conjunction with weekly classes for new chemotherapy and radiation patients.”

Challenge in Urban Centers

In major urban centers, the challenge is not building local loyalty but distinguishing one cancer center from a number of nearby, competing institutions.

Kerry M. O’Neill Wallace, CTR, MBA, cancer program administrative coordinator at North Shore University Comprehensive Cancer Center, Manhasset, NY, described her chief task as differentiating her center, which is a component of the North Shore Long Island Jewish Health system, from the four National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers within an hour’s drive.

As one of 11 hospitals in a system serving a catchment area of 4 million people in a densely populated area of suburban New York, the 750-bed tertiary cancer center emphasizes providing detailed information and extensive psychosocial services to its sophisticated purchaser base.

In an urban market highly penetrated by a handful of managed care networks, the goal is convincing potential patients that “if they need it, we’ve got it,” said Nancy J. Harris, MPA, director of Sutter Cancer Center, Sacramento, California.

Sutter is a tertiary cancer center in a large managed care network covering 26 hospitals and 5,000 physicians in 100 communities. Thus, Ms. Sutter said that her goal is keeping plan members “in plan” and attracting other patients from “out of plan.”

Who Is the Customer?

In rural areas with relatively low managed care penetration, such as the Columbus Regional Hospital, the keys to attracting patients, Mr. Roberts said, are familiarizing local physicians with the center’s facilities and staff and providing quality care—including access to clinical trials—in a warm, hometown atmosphere. “Columbus’s three oncologists provide 1,700 chemotherapy treatments and 9,500 radiation treatments annually,” Mr. Roberts said.

Ms. Harris noted that in an urban area dominated by large managed care networks, on the other hand, the customer is often not the individual patient but, rather, large employers purchasing coverage for hundreds or thousands of employees. Subspecialty expertise and advanced technology are powerful selling points to these buyers, as they are to oncologists and specialty physicians not in the Sutter system who refer patients to Sutter for tertiary care.

“Other important marketing targets for Sutter are health plan case managers, both within and without the Sutter system, who must approve referrals to the cancer center,” Ms. Harris said. In addition, a highly regarded cancer center is a strong selling point during the huge open enrollment periods in which large employee groups such as the many government workers in the California state capital choose among Sutter and other available health plans. “At these times, competing systems advertise directly to individual customers,” she explained.

Ms. Wallace of North Shore cited “a highly informed and responsive cancer information system, available free by phone around the clock” as an important tool in making a center stand out in a crowded field as both caring and expert.

North Shore's information hotline uses an easy-to-remember central number for the entire health system and registered nurses to field calls. “North Shore’s hotline has a large store of information to provide callers, both over the phone and later by mail follow-up,” she said.

The hotline refers callers to system physicians, both for second opinions and new cases; advertises such services as psychosocial support groups and clinical trials; recruits new participants to groups and trials; dispenses information about specific diseases and available programs; steers callers to research studies; and offers information about options open to patients.

“It is especially important,” Ms. Wallace emphasized, “that the information system refer callers to other hospitals if North Shore does not have the services they need. This builds the image of the system as impartial, expert, caring, honest, and trustworthy.”

Those answering calls must have the expertise and experience to recognize a crisis, whether medical or psychosocial, and provide appropriate guidance, she added. Because of liability issues, however, the hotline must make clear that it cannot offer diagnosis over the phone.

In highly competitive markets, furthermore, centers must develop an image, based on their true strengths, that is appealing and easy to remember, the panelists said.

Valet Parking?

Sutter, for example, emphasizes the convenience of a one-stop center that has a comprehensive array of services, including the latest and best treatments, psychosocial supports, and convenience features such as valet parking. “This being California,” Ms. Harris said, “of course, the center offers such services as lectures on complementary medicine and creative therapies, including dance movement therapy, music therapy, and art therapy.”

North Shore, meanwhile, puts heavy emphasis on treating the patient as the top priority and providing state-of-the-art care in a caring, hopeful environment.

All the panelists concurred on the absolute importance of keeping referring physicians fully and promptly informed about their patients’ progress and treatments. Lack of such information, they agreed, was physicians’ most frequent complaint and strongly discouraged future referrals.