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When to Call a “Patient” a “Patient”

There is an enormous amount of emotional connotation attached to the word ‘patient’. There is so much more meaning to that set of letters than just its surface. It can convey concepts of illness, suffering, recovery, treatment, hospitals, offices; mostly things that someone receiving care may not even want to associate with themselves.

At its core, the emotion of the word is something that marketers in our industry struggle to define. We juggle the emotion behind using the word "patients" with our charge of attracting people to our systems and services who we can help (and who will be best-served by our business).

In other industries, we would call this group of end users something much more direct. HIMSS, in what seems like a wave that had been coming for a long time, sneaking closer to a word that seemed to be verboten among this group: consumers. You can see the tension from Stat’s Casey Ross in his wrap-up from a week-long study of the HIMSS atmosphere, in which he all but begged to ban the idea of consumerization in healthcare, saying, “We should describe them as [patients] instead of equating their needs to those of people browsing grocery aisles.”

There is so much behind both words – and the people who healthcare companies serve – that make the battle hard. So what do we do when the reality is also coming because of new entrants to the space, and the bigger presence of consumer technology brands like Amazon, Google, and Uber at this year’s event in Orlando? Somewhere down the line, these are in fact consumers of something – should we treat them as such, especially from a marketing side of the house?

During an educational session showcasing the robust engagement tools that Penn Medicine leveraged in past years, the presenters discussed the detail at which they could connect a marketing campaign to a patient’s outreach to their call center. The word “Salesforce” was uttered – and not just on the exhibition floor.

It makes a ton of sense to the marketing side of my brain – a strong CRM that connects a unique phone number to each campaign initiative, creating an immediate flag to the call center representative tasked with getting the person to the right next step (whether that’s an appointment, an educational resource, or access to a user management tool). To my healthcare brain, that last sentence, though, was really hard to write without using the word patient.

A questioner asked that panel if there was internal friction regarding the discussion and vision of these potential constituents, and Tanya Andreadis (then CMO of Penn and now in the same role at UCLA Health) was quick to note that both words carry positives and negatives. The conversation also calls to mind recent talk from our Joe Public Retreat in Charleston, where Matt Gove (Chief Consumer Officer, Piedmont Healthcare) discussed mapping the patient/consumer label to acuity — treating people like consumers only when they act like consumers (i.e., in low-acuity situations).

The session itself didn’t resolve it, but the audience member had one suggestion to boot: do we need to invent a new word that combines the two? What is our Patient/Consumer Narwhal of a word? It may just be a term, but as we look to increase the robust, personalized ways of marketing to this audience, these considerations mean that we truly look at our stakeholders the way they want to consider themselves. 

February 15, 2019
Nothing beats a good old-fashioned conversation.
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