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Hospital Attracts Patients With Doctor 'Speed Dating'

In a room that looks like a cafe with colorful tablecloths and vases of lilies, speed dating is about to begin.

But the 20 people attending this Tuesday afternoon rendezvous aren't looking for romance. The Dallas-area hospital running the event hopes to hook up people needing doctors with physicians looking for new patients. It's a tool hospital administrators use to recruit doctors -- critical drivers of revenue -- and consumers.

Physicians and parents pair off for five minutes, then rotate into new conversations.

"How far along?" Dr. James Wheeler asks Kim Gage, a 36-year-old computer programmer pregnant with her third child, as she approaches his table. "I usually am not too cavalier about that question, but I thought I was safe here."

"You are safe here," Gage replies with a laugh. The two seem at ease, and Gage peppers him with questions. How accessible would he be as a doctor? How does he feel about medications for attention deficit disorder? And what does the office look like?

The "Doc Shop," the fifth at the Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Hurst-Euless-Bedford, is an innovative example of hospital marketing.

Although some critics say marketing drives up the cost and use of health care, many in the hospital industry say it's crucial in the face of increasing competition, which includes not only other hospitals, but also private operations such as surgical and imaging centers. In addition, they say much of hospital marketing is geared to educating patients and physicians about the hospital's quality and services.

Despite Downturn, Hospitals Try To Stay Competitive

The dollar amount that hospitals spend on marketing and communications doubled during the past decade.

In 2009, the budgets ranged from an average of $1.3 million for independent hospitals to $5.8 million for large health systems, according to a survey by the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development (SHSMD), part of the American Hospital Association. That's less than 1 percent of the average hospital budget, and may also include money spent on free screenings at health fairs and publication of hospital magazines.

But with more people losing employer-based insurance and some skipping elective procedures, revenue declined during the economic downturn.

By advertising for free on Facebook, Twitter and e-mail, Texas Health HEB marketing specialist Mandy Forbus says the hospital was able to keep the cost of the Doc Shop at about $600. And she's able to target a specific population of privately insured patients.

Hospital President Debbie Paganelli says the Dallas-Fort Worth area is "highly competitive" for hospitals, with several major health systems in a relatively small area.

"I'm always going to be looking over my shoulder to see what [the] competition is doing, because I always want to stay one step ahead of them," she says. That includes staying on top of cutting-edge technology, constantly renovating the facility and having a marketing campaign.

The first four Texas Health HEB Doc Shop events, which began last fall, were aimed at OB-GYNs. Paganelli explains that much of the marketing is targeted toward women, who make many of a family's health care decisions.

Physicians Drive Health Care Spending

The Doc Shop is not just about marketing to patients. It's also a tool to reach out to physicians and encourage them to refer their patients back to the hospital.

"Physicians drive health care, period," says Travis Singleton, a senior vice president at Merritt Hawkins, a physician placement firm. "Ninety percent of the health care dollars that are spent in today's marketplace are through the physician's pen, whether that's patients they admit, whether that's tests they administer, whether that's procedures they order, whether that's insurance they bill."

Even if a Doc Shop participant chooses one of the physicians at the event, there's no guarantee that the hospital will ever see any business from them. But when hospitals help doctors, the business often trickles back over time in "downstream revenue" with referrals for surgeries, tests and other procedures, Singleton says.

"As a hospital, if you're trying to run your business in the most efficient and financially viable way possible, you need to make sure you have the most physician-friendly environment, where they feel comfortable," he says.

Dr. Rebecca Guinn, a young OB-GYN who began practicing last August, has attended three of the Doc Shops so far and says she's gotten at least 10 new patients through the events.

"It's a great service the hospital is providing," says Guinn, who delivers her patients at Texas Health HEB. Not only has it helped grow her practice, but it's also helped to ease what could be an awkward first office visit. "It feels like a more friendly encounter. They're more relaxed and ready to talk."

'I Can't Say, "We Have A Sale On Appendectomies" '

Susan Dubuque, president of the Virginia marketing firm Neathawk Dubuque & Packett, says hospital marketing can be challenging. Unlike retail, she explains, health care is episodic. A clothing shop, for example, can advertise a sale on dresses, but "I can't very well do a sale and say, 'We have a sale on appendectomies today,' " she says.

Nonetheless, there are a number of strategies to help consumers think of the hospital if a medical need arises. Sometimes, a hospital might advertise an elective procedure, such as a gastric bypass, but generally, hospitals work to build up their brand over time. "You never know when the need will arise for any individual patient for a health care service," says Dubuque, who is also an SHSMD board member.

A hospital might advertise an expensive new piece of technology or robotic surgery, for example. Even if the people who see that ad never need a procedure that requires the equipment, it "gives them the sense of confidence that this place has the latest and greatest," she says. "If you can do a high-tech procedure, surely you can take care of my gall bladder."

James Unland, editor of the Journal of Health Care Finance, says many hospitals overreach with their marketing, too often targeting audiences that are outside their geographic area and failing to take into account that doctors generally determine where a patient is hospitalized. But he says concentrated efforts, especially those aimed at educating patients -- such as virtual tours of facilities -- can be helpful and cost effective.

For patients, living in a competitive hospital marketing environment can mean access to perks like newly renovated hospitals, free lecture series and magazines -- and for those in Bedford, Texas, help choosing a new physician.

Kim Gage says the speed dating event was a success: It helped her find Dr. Wheeler, the pediatrician she's been searching for.

"Meeting them and getting a feel is so much better than picking a name," she said. "It didn't take long, you got free lunch, and you got to meet the doctors! There's nothing bad about it."

This story was produced through collaboration between NPR and Kaiser Health News (KHN), an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health-care policy research organization. The Kaiser Family Foundation is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Copyright 2023 Kaiser Health News. To see more, visit Kaiser Health News.

Jenny Gold