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Yves here. As if MBAs haven’t already done enough damage to the medical industry and hospitals in particular by putting profit (or in not-for-profits, greatly increasing administrator pay packages) over patients, the post below presents another ugly tale, of trying to fit hospitals into managerial Procrustean beds. This would be funny if it weren’t serious.

By Roy Poses, MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at Brown University, and the President of FIRM – the Foundation for Integrity and Responsibility in Medicine. Originally published at Health Care Renewal

Once, a long time ago, in a galaxy far away, doctors and hospitals did no marketing, and pharmaceutical marketing was restricted to health care professional audiences.  Now, in the US, we have  often seen the negative effects of exuberant  marketing, often deceptive, on the health care system.

A Marketer Pushes More Marketing Influence on Hospital Management

Yet, in a post in the Marketing Insider section of MediaPost, a writer lamented that marketing does not have enough influence within hospitals.

About 10% of hospital budgets are designated for marketing. It’s been that way for years, with stagnant year-on-year growth.

That is in contrast to … Amazon, of course:

Amazon reported record profits in 2018, earning $10.1 billion in net income compared with just $3 billion the prior year. Amazon ranked as the nation’s fourth-largest advertiser in 2017, spending an estimated $3.4 billion in U.S. advertising and promotions.

It goes beyond Amazon, though:

Amazon is not the only company appropriately valuing marketing. Many modern consumer-focused enterprises are moving from seeking maximum ROI to actually transforming the marketing value chain.

IMHO, this shows how managers who run, or at least pontificate about running hospitals do not seem to have an idea what hospitals actually do.  How does a hospital, the locus for providing care to sick and injured people, care provided by highly trained health care professionals sworn to put patients’ values ahead of all other concerns, compare to a web-based retailer, or to most “consumer-focused enterprises?”

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Furthermore, the post pushes the value of marketing beyond just raising awareness of or promoting a product,

Part of the reason hospital systems are starting to spend more on marketing is that the function is broadening. Marketing teams are being asked to take on more strategic tasks, from managing the hospital’s brand and reputation to operationalizing patient engagement.

Traditionally, patient experience falls under the purview of quality or safety. But in the last decade, health systems have seen the marketing department’s impact on the patent experience, even going so far as to have marketing report to the chief patient experience officer.

One might think that the typical patient who comes to a hospital wants to experience an improvement in their condition, their symptoms, their function, reduction of their pain, or sometimes the remission or even cure of their problem.  I do not see how any rational person seeking a fun experience would choose to go to a hospital.  What marketing has to do with health care quality or safety completely escapes me.

The Rationale: a Misinterpretation of  the Social Determinants of Health

The rationalization for involving marketers in patients’ experiences was:

Leaders are seeing that the care they provide accounts for just 20% of patients’ optimal outcomes. The rest is attributable to factors like social determinants of health. Today, if hospital systems want to keep patients healthy, they have to influence experiences patients have outside the hospital walls.

The notion that marketing by a hospital would be an optimal way to positively influence social determinants of health is bizarre, to use a polite term.  To quote an article entitled “Beyond Health Care: The Role of Social Determinants in Promoting Health and Health Equity” published by the Kaiser Family Foundation,

Social determinants of health include factors like socioeconomic status, education, neighborhood and physical environment, employment, and social support networks, as well as access to health care. Addressing social determinants of health is important for improving health and reducing longstanding disparities in health and health care.

What could hospital marketing do to affect such factors?  Instead, the writer explained:

Hospitals and health systems are moving beyond simple outreach and using the principles of marketing — such as segmentation, personalization and meeting consumers where they are — to engage patients in changing behavior and getting them invested in their own well-being.

Health systems must ensure that every time a patient interacts with their brand, that interaction keeps patients engaged and satisfied and delivers on the fundamental promise that they make to their patients: making and keeping them well.

Again, what has that to do with socioeconomic status, education, neighborhood and physical environment, employment, and social support networks? Rather than talking about social factors, the writer appears to be talking about some efforts to change individual patients’ behavior.

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However, the KFF article made a clear distinction between social determinants of health and individual health behaviors, while asserting that social determinants of health may influence individual behaviors, but not necessarily the other way around:

While there is currently no consensus in the research on the magnitude of the relative contributions of each of these factors to health, studies suggest that health behaviors, such as smoking, diet, and exercise, and social and economic factors are the primary drivers of health outcomes, and social and economic factors can shape individuals’ health behaviors. For example, children born to parents who have not completed high school are more likely to live in an environment that poses barriers to health such as lack of safety, exposed garbage, and substandard housing. They also are less likely to have access to sidewalks, parks or playgrounds, recreation centers, or a library.4 Further, evidence shows that stress negatively affects health across the lifespan5 and that environmental factors may have multi-generational impacts.

Thus, to argue that hospital marketing could influence individual patient behaviors and thus positively affect social determinants of health makes no sense.

Summary: Managerialism, Again

I applaud the writer’s implication that

hospital systems want to keep patients healthy

(As an aside though, hospitals cannot want anything, but the people who work in them can.)

But however well intended, or at least rationalized, marketers pushing their greater involvement in patient experience, even if it is not self-serving, seems like just another push for the managerialism that already haunts health care.

Managerialism is the belief that trained managers are better leaders of health care, and every other sort of organization, than are than people familiar with the particulars of the organizations’ work.  Managerialism has become an ascendant value in health care over the last 30 years.  The majority of hospital CEOs are now management trained, but lacking in experience and training inmedicine, direct health care, biomedical science, or public health.  And managerialism is now ascendant in the US government.  Our president, and many of his top-level appointees, are former business managers without political experience or government experience.

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We noted an important article that in the June, 2015 issue of the Medical Journal of Australia(1) that made these points about managerialism:

– businesses of all types are now largely run by generic managers, trained in management but not necessarily knowledgeable about the details of the particular firm’s business
– this change was motivated by neoliberalism (also known as economism or market fundamentalism)
– managerialism now affects all kinds of organizations, including health care, educational and scientific organizations
– managerialism makes short-term revenue the first priority of all organizations
– managerialism undermines the health care mission and the values of health care professionals

Managerialism may be a major cause of  mission-hostile management. In non-profit hospitals, mission-hostile management threatens care of vulnerable patients, particularly by prioritizing hospital revenues, and the financial self-interest of management over patient care. Note that the rise of the manager-leader occurred at a time when management schools increasingly preached the dogma that maximizing shareholder value, usually equivalent to maximizing short-term revenue, should be the first, if not the only goal of all managers (look here).  For example, an article on the miseducation of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, asserted that

Harvard Business School, like much of the M.B.A. universe in which Sandberg was reared, has always cared less about moral leadership than career advancement and financial performance.

Managerialists may be convinced that they are working for the greater good.  However, I am convinced that our health care system would be a lot less dysfunctional if it were led by people who actually know something about biomedical science, health care, and public health, and who understand and uphold the values of health care and public health professionals – even if that would cost a lot of very well paid managerialists their jobs.

Reference

1.  Komesaroff PA, Kerridge IH, Isaacs D, Brooks PM.  The scourge of managerialism and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.  Med J Aust 2015; 202: 519- 521.  Link here.

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