Hospital mergers and acquisitions (M&As) are increasingly affecting the way women shop for and acquire health care in America. M&As include the consolidation of separate hospitals into a system (whether that’s a larger hospital acquiring a smaller one or multiple smaller hospitals merging), as well as hospitals/health systems purchasing physician practices or other provider services. These also include the merging and acquisition of health care services like skilled nursing practices, ambulance services, ambulatory surgical centers, nursing home facilities, pharmacies and more.
M&As often represent large changes for hospitals and health care systems. The challenge for female health care shoppers, who make 80% of health care decisions in America, is in determining the benefits and drawbacks of M&As in their market and then using what they know to make the best health care choices for themselves and their families. My work as CEO of Northlich, a health care-focused marketing agency, has given me insight into the concerns many women have about how M&As affect their health care choices. Below are a few of these concerns.
• While M&As give hospitals the opportunity to reduce costs by eliminating redundancies, this often doesn’t result in cost savings for patients. In fact, M&As tend to reduce competition in their geographic regions, which means consumers have fewer choices available to them. It also means a reduction in competition on price, which tends to be bad for consumers.
• It can take a long time after a deal goes through for a hospital or health system to fully integrate. And a health system that isn’t homogenous or that has poor internal communication can present challenges for patients.
• As physician practices are acquired by hospitals, more physicians are practicing in hospital-based settings. This can make it harder for consumers to navigate than independent physician-owned practices or smaller facilities.
However, many women aren’t aware of the potential benefits of M&As. Hospital and health care marketers have an opportunity to educate them on these points.
• When smaller hospitals merge or are acquired by larger networks, they have more access to capital, which means they can invest in updated facilities, equipment and more staff.
• After a merger, hospitals and health care organizations usually standardize clinical protocols across the entire system. As a result, patient outcomes can improve.
• Merged systems can offer more types of services to their consumers, with the added advantage of a single electronic health record (EHR) keeping track of each patient’s medical history and current needs.
• When health care information is digitized and consolidated after a merger, it creates richer, cleaner data sets, which can be used for research.
Consumers are right to be concerned about M&As, but marketers for hospitals and health care systems can alleviate their concerns by focusing on how the benefits will directly affect consumers. Here are a few examples of the myriad ways marketers can change the way health care shoppers view a hospital merger:
• In a testimonial campaign, patients can share stories about how they got easy and direct access to life-improving or even lifesaving specialty care as the result of a merger. In my agency’s work with a rural community hospital that became part of a larger network, we used a testimonial campaign to introduce a patient who was a well-recognized member of the community. She benefited from the larger system’s diagnostic expertise, yet was able to experience most of her treatment at her local facility close to home — a key benefit for many of this system’s patients.
• TV, OOH, radio and other traditional campaign tactics are good vehicles for sharing statistics about how a recent merger or acquisition resulted in improved patient outcomes. They can also explain what standardized protocols are and how they help patients. It’s been my experience that, while many hospitals advertise their rankings after a merger, statistics that speak to new and improved access to more sophisticated procedures and/or equipment stand out. Showcasing the care team’s appreciation for access to these additional resources, and bringing forward the voices of front-line staff like nurses and other providers, can also improve internal culture.
• Having to contact other health systems for health info can take a long time and be a hassle, especially when those other systems use different EHRs, or use the same EHR in a different way. Social media can be a good messaging platform for helping patients understand the benefit of having all their health care information in one EHR. That way, in the event they need emergency or specialty care, the physicians who care for them will have all the information they need immediately — including information that goes beyond dosing and cautions to encompass practical caregiving tips. Endorsements from patients and caregivers alike about working with a coordinated team that has effortless access to accurate information can be very powerful.
When a health care or hospital change is large or complex and will affect many of its patients, often the best tactic for marketers is to help consumers see the change through a positive lens. Hospital marketers are uniquely poised to help female health care shoppers do just that.