The Triple-Edged Sword of AMCs

Marketing leaders at Academic Medical Centers (AMCs) have always faced a double-edged sword. On one hand, their institutions are in many ways the crown jewels of the U.S. health system, delivering research and innovation that advances the science of medicine while training tomorrow’s physicians. This institutional foundation also creates a clear differentiation in the market, positioning AMCs as the place to go for the latest and greatest treatment for the most difficult clinical situations. At the same time, however, AMCs have earned a reputation – rightfully so in many cases – where the focus on research and education often takes precedence over patient care, or result in a cumbersome patient journey. Typically, this shows in both the perception and reality of a less than stellar patient experience, which obviously can negatively impact a health system’s brand.

Now, AMC marketing leaders are facing what I call a “third edge” – the very strength that epitomizes their institutions inhibits their ability to reengineer their approach to marketing and branding. Looking at our industry, technology and consumers themselves have combined to create a significant and urgent need to change. Unfortunately for AMC marketing leaders, their institution’s inherent strengths make their hill that much steeper to climb. (Read more on why health systems should embrace the idea of reengineering their approach to marketing.)

Benefits as Barriers to Change

First, as we’ve worked with AMCs across the country over the last few years to reengineer their approach to marketing, the challenges these organizations face embracing change are not for lack of desire or sophistication. Those who lead AMC marketing departments are among the smartest healthcare marketing leaders in the industry. They must be, given the complex nature of their organizations and the sophisticated science and research involved in their work. Yet in working with and observing a number of them in action, it’s clear they face hurdles other healthcare CMOs don’t, many of which connect directly to their organizations’ chief differentiators. Among the significant barriers to change include:

  • The “triple mission” – AMCs must split their resources and focus three ways to support their three primary missions – clinical care, research, and education. This of course isn’t new, but when trying to adapt in the face of swift and monumental industry changes, this trifurcated focus only slows efforts.
  • Super physicians – faculty who work at AMCs are among the best clinicians and researchers anywhere. Their expertise is often the number one attribute in any given clinical area, and they are one of the primary reasons patients seek an AMC. If physicians are the rock stars of a health system, then AMC faculty are the Beatles (or Beyonce, depending on your music preferences). However, because AMC faculty physicians focus some of their time on research and teaching, they cannot focus entirely on clinical care. This again is not new, but when CMOs are trying to build more responsive patient interactions – in the face of consumerism – such as incorporating telehealth or email access, this AMC strength becomes yet another barrier.
  • The limitations of research – from a positioning standpoint, an AMC focus on research is the primary supporting evidence for the perception that they are the place to receive the most advanced care. The problem here, of course, is that for some time the industry has been moving away from inpatient care and continues to do so, and demonstrating the value of research across the entire spectrum of care – not just quaternary, tertiary or secondary, but primary, retail, and even health – becomes difficult. Many health systems are moving toward delivering value not just for patients who are sick and injured, but for consumers wishing to stay healthy. That’s a harder selling point for an organization that’s known primarily for treating the sickest and most injured, and it limits positioning opportunities.

What’s a CMO to do?

Despite these significant barriers, all is not lost for those who oversee marketing at AMCs. While those CMOs may need to work harder or smarter to achieve some of the same transformational gains as their peers, there are a few strategies to employ to help overcome the “third edge” their organizations present:

  1. Create a marketing vision – we’ve seen AMC CMOs have great success in creating a powerful vision of where the organization should be in three to five years and how marketing can support that vision. While a marketing plan, brand strategy, and other foundational elements are still critical for success, a marketing vision can help articulate the overarching value the organization can deliver and marketing’s role in delivering it. Such a vision can help you, if possible, prioritize the value of clinical care in the eyes of consumers, rather than treating research and education equally. It can also show those in the organization that are more research-focused how, in the end, all of their work will impact those the organization serves in broad and tangible ways.
  2. Create clear interaction strategies for leadership and faculty – all health system CMOs, AMC-focused or not, have to be smart about how they demonstrate marketing’s value to the C-Suite, physicians and operational leaders, and engage those audiences in moving marketing initiatives forward. For AMC marketing leaders, however, there are often deeper levels of review and approval required to move forward with any significant marketing initiative or investment. Those AMCs we’ve seen who are successful with this know what the appropriate cadence is for these interactions, who needs to be involved, how much time needs to be allotted for reviews, etc. They have, likely through the pain of learning the hard way, developed clear strategies for interacting with leaders that both meet the more “bloated” needs of an AMC but also maximize go-to-market speed and effectiveness.
  3. Follow the “four shifts” – While any healthcare marketers could benefit from embracing these four critical shifts of reengineering, their application becomes even more crucial in an AMC environment given all of the other competing factors:
  • Move from a focus on communication to engagement with consumers
  • Move from mass messaging to individualized conversations
  • Move from advertising as the primary marketing tool to content
  • Move from traditional tactics to a digital-first approach

These shifts aren’t revolutionary any more, yet they are critical for AMCs given the unique and myriad challenges they face. Focus on these simple shifts, and any CMO will go a long way to overcoming the challenges unique to AMCs.  Health system marketing has caught-up to other industries in many ways, and this puts further pressure on AMC CMOs to further differentiate their organizations’ integrated marketing efforts.

March 6, 2017
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