Signs Healed Delivered

September 28, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Spectrum Health is the largest health-care organization in West Michigan and it wants to make sure people in the area know it. The hospital system launched an outdoor advertising campaign at the beginning of the month, promoting its first-place status in a number of categories. The billboards show Spectrum as the industry leader in five inpatient clinical procedures — not just in West Michigan, but also in the entire state.

The billboards couldn’t be more straightforward. Each one shows a black-and-white photo of a patient who received treatment from Spectrum, along with a one-line statement showing Spectrum as the state leader in the relevant procedure. For example, one billboard shows a mother cradling a smiling baby and kissing her forehead. The headline reads, “More babies delivered than anyone else in Michigan.” A line at the bottom of each billboard identifies the patient shown.

In addition to 8,175 baby deliveries, the billboards also showcase Spectrum’s first-place volume ranking in open-heart surgeries (1,202); knee replacements (982); trauma experience (2,990); and bariatric surgeries (1,173), which is the prevention and control of obesity and related diseases. The statistics are for the period between July 1, 2003, and June 30, 2004, with the rankings based on data from the Michigan Inpatient Data Base, compiled by the Michigan Health and Hospital Association in Lansing.

Showing off these statistics is not simply a matter of bragging. Although the billboards only use the words “more … than anyone else in Michigan” in reference to the number of procedures, Spectrum is hoping that consumers will make the logical leap from “more” to “most” to “best.” Being the highest-volume provider of these treatments implies that Spectrum may indeed be the best at them, according to Spectrum Health President and CEO Richard C. Breon.

“Research has shown that the greater the hospital or provider’s experience in any given procedure, the better the patient outcomes,” Breon said in a statement. “This campaign is about educating consumers on the importance of quality in health care.”

That teaching job was the responsibility of Nancy Tait, Spectrum’s vice president of system communications and marketing. She and her team created the campaign.

“I think our motivation and the thinking behind any of the advertising and marketing we do is to take an educational approach,” she said. “We thought this was a good way to let consumers understand the quality of our services. Because that’s really what it comes down to is quality.”

Tait said that this campaign, which includes complementary print advertising, emphasizes the relationship between the frequency with which Spectrum performs these procedures and the successful outcomes the patients experience.

“We actually tested the billboards with consumers to see if they made that connection (between volume and positive outcomes) and they did. We’re looking at continuing to talk about quality and volume and how the two are related,” she said, summarizing future advertising plans.

They may continue to talk, but the question is whether consumers will listen. Roy Winegar doesn’t think so. He teaches advertising at Grand Valley State University. Winegar gave high marks to a recent campaign from Saint Mary’s Health Care, primarily because of its patient focus. The ads — which include broadcast, print and outdoor media — do not emphasize the specific advantages of Saint Mary’s doctors or facilities. Instead they focus on the healthy, active lives of patients who have been treated there. For example, an ad for knee replacement surgery does not show doctors, X-rays or even an artificial knee; it shows a middle-aged man hiking through the woods with his son.

“I find the (Spectrum Health) campaign a bit of a hybrid of what Saint Mary’s did,” Winegar said. “They seem to be using real people in testimonial script in conjunction with what I feel the consumer will see as puffery copy. While their data supports their claims as to having done the most procedures and that this manifests itself as being able to be better at the procedures, I believe it will fall on deaf ears at the consumer end. The consumer will not take the time to differentiate between more procedures done and more burgers sold. This is a hype line they hear all of the time. McDonald’s has used the ‘real’ people testimony for years. From the consumer’s perspective, what’s to make the more-procedures hype any different from the more-burgers hype? I find it hard to believe that they will see much bounce from this campaign.”

But likening heart surgery to hamburgers is certainly not comparing apples to apples, according to Tait.

“Health care is different, I believe. For me, knowing that somebody has done more procedures like an open-heart surgery — the complexity of something like that or the skills that something like that requires — can’t really be compared to something like making hamburgers,” Tait said. “It might be true if this was that kind of a retail product. But I think in health care there’s probably a difference, because of the complexity of what we’re doing, because of the seriousness of what we’re doing. If you have a bad outcome with something like an open-heart surgery, that’s a lot more serious than getting bad service at a fast food restaurant.”

Again Tait emphasized the importance of educating consumers on the volume-equals-experience angle the ads promote.

Although Winegar may favor Saint Mary’s advertising approach over the new campaign from Spectrum, it should be mentioned that the two campaigns have different goals. Saint Mary’s hoped to define itself as a friendly, people-driven hospital that might not be the largest but could certainly be the right fit for many patients. Spectrum’s campaign, on the other hand, offers five reminders of who runs the biggest health system in town. And if the campaign works as designed, consumers will take that to mean that Spectrum Health is also the best. If not, consumers may simply see “Billions and Billions Served.”    

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