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Rural Healthcare — The basic challenges and steps in creating a hospital’s strategic marketing plan

“The codfish lays ten thousand eggs; the homely hen lays one.
The codfish never cackles, to tell you what she’s done.
And so we scorn the codfish, while the humble hen we prize,
Which only goes to show you, that it pays to advertise.”

Sougat Chatterjee
Sougat Chatterjee

Marketing and advertising are equally important for any business to thrive. But, when it comes to marketing rural healthcare, the challenges take a mammoth form.

The focus and purpose of marketing changes. You come face-to-face to balancing business goal with profits and hospital’s mission.

Facing the Challenge of Setting up a Rural Healthcare

Marketing in healthcare calls for shifting focus from the product to the consumer, which could be patients, physicians, another organization, or the community at large. This means, the prerequisite of marketing becomes the exchange of a service for revenue and the ability to meet the need.

But, what to do when you realize that patients do not have anything to exchange for your service — no insurance or financial resources? How to market then?

Marketing is about learning the other party’s existence, i.e. patients must know what hospitals have to offer and hospitals must know the community’s needs. So, regardless of the hospital’s mission or type (non-profit or otherwise), the goal of growth through marketing boils down to the clarity of communication of the offered services.

How to balance growth with the challenges unique to healthcare marketing:

1. Move from patient volume to offered value.
2. Publish service satisfaction scores.
3. Make feedback public: Know what is being said about your facility and services, and respond quickly to them in a positive manner.
4. Maintain transparent pricing model.
5. Increase forms of competencies such as, large systems, urgent care, intensive care, etc.

Developing a Marketing Roadmap

• Grow a market base which is loyal to the hospital.
• Build long-term relationship with current or potential customers.
• Let your team steer and address the public perception of the hospital.

What do you earn from this?

Loyalty and trust gives way to choosing your facility and services over other options and word-of-mouth publicity.

Steps to Creating Your Hospital’s Strategic Plan:

Step 1: Understand Your Hospital’s Market Position

To know your hospital’s current market position:

• Get customer versus market information: Survey and assess the demographics of your target community. What communities you serve? What is the age and gender breakdown of that county? Find about the key players and assess your position against them. Think who can pose a threat to your position and if you can turn them in your partners.

• Identify your core competencies: After jotting down your core competencies and deliverables, spot the areas you cannot serve. Ask yourself – What do our patients tell others and love about us? Then, identify players with whom you can amicably team up to deliver the complete set of services.

• Cater to your customer’s needs: Finally, make meeting the needs of the community your priority, not just your strengths. How much is Medicaid/Medicare available at your facility? Know where your community population is going when they need care. Remodel areas that need upgrade.

Step 2: Define Your Vision for the Hospital’s Future

Determine where you want to be and come up with your Vision Statement, i.e. a mental picture of what you want to achieve over time.

To come up with a Vision Statement, ask yourself:

• What would my healthcare facility look like if everything was incredible?
• What would I want my customers and healthcare community to know about my hospital?
• Where do we want to be a year from now?

Don’t be afraid of new ideas. Take cue from how we have moved from a mission of “providing high quality healthcare” to “improving community health.” This is the time for developing centre of alternative and integrative health.

Step 3: Determine Your Marketing Objectives

Your objectives should be SMART — Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound.

Three ways to set the objective:

1. Have each department or services area set their own marketing objective;
2. Start with a few bigger objectives that work for the hospital;
3. Focus on the top three opportunities or the top three threats that your hospital faces.

Growth Strategies to Consider:

• Market Penetration: Increasing the sale of present products and services in present markets;
• Market Development: Initiating sales of existing products and services in new markets;
• Product Development: Creating new products for existing markets;
• Diversification: Developing new products or services for new markets;
• Strategic Alliances: Partnering with other resources to enter a new market;
• Divestment/Pruning: Selling off a business or product line / reducing the products/services it offers.

Step 4: Who’s Riding in Your Car? Identify Stakeholders and Communication Plan

It’s important to consider who are the stakeholders, this can affect and who needs to be involved in the process? Who do we need to communicate this plan to? They can be:

• New/Current/Former patients
• Potential patients
• Local/National Government
• Board
• Providers
• Healthcare suppliers
• Community at large – associations, clubs, organizations, other businesses

Brainstorm and develop a plan on how to communicate to each of these groups. You can communicate through:

• Publications
• Direct Mail / Newsletter
• Press Releases to Local and State Media, Trade Associations
• Advertising
• Listings in Trade Directories and Internet Listings
• Website Strategy
• Local Events – Exhibits
• Telemarketing
• Specialty Promotional Items

Step 5: Plan: Action Items, Timelines and Budgets

Understand your business goal on what you would like to achieve. To bring up an action plan that can be implemented to reach that goal, consider these three approaches:

1. Brainstorm action item list for each of the marketing objectives. Start with a plan of three months. Determine who needs to be involved internally from your various departments. For example, if one of the marketing objectives involves employees, then make sure HR is effectively involved in the decision making.

2. Set timelines for objectives and if available, budgets. A short term (6-12 months) action plan can be used for testing purposes, while a medium term action plan (2-3 years) for proper implementation, and a long term action plan (3-5 years) to witness profitable results.

3. Set a weekly or monthly time to follow up on action items, measure effectiveness, and discuss next steps.

Step 6: Identify Avoidable Liabilities and Risks

Before rolling out new messages, campaigns, or other actions, here is a last check called “Avoidances” comprising of things that could halt or hurt your marketing journey.

Here are the steps to check if any communication coming from your organization isn’t set up for liability:

1. Regularly Review Factual Messages: Even if objective and verifiable, some facts about a hospital can change over time such as, religious affiliation, the cost of services, hours, appointment procedures, accessibility by public transportation, etc. Review these periodically.

2. Substantiate Opinion Messages: Substantiating opinion messages is important, especially those that are comparative or superlative, for example, best care, latest technology. These must be validated and backed by an outside group or a certification.

3. Corroborate Expert Endorsements: If you are making claims such as, proven through test, doctors recommend, and studies show, etc then you need to conduct activities that test, recommend and back up these claims.

4. Keep Tab on Consumer Testimonials: Ensure that it is representative of what consumers should generally expect.

Over to You

Marketing for healthcare is no different than marketing for anything else. Rural setting is just another element in your market and demographic. The only way to ace this is to study all aspects carefully and find a product-market fit in such a way that you are a survivor in all scenarios.

Why feel content being a survivor? Because, your first goal is to strengthen your roots in a market where resources are limited in every sense and there are multiple barrier to entry. However, once you have survived the initial storm and turned your competitors into your allies, you’ll be a winner all the way. Not only will your facility be profitable with huge amounts of goodwill, but you will also come at the centrestage of all healthcare needs.

Sougat Chatterjee
Director, Sales & Marketing
Nayati Healthcare & Research, Gurgaon

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