Virna Brooks, a Professor and Healthcare Executive, catches up with the Briefing Room (BR) to talk about Healthcare Marketing in light of Reform. The consumers are new, their preferences are different, and the timing is tight. Marketing will play a pivotal role in the success of health care reform.
What’s Your Name
Brooks: Virna Brooks
How long have you been in the health care industry?
Brooks: Since 1996- 17 years
Tell us about your health care experience.
Brooks: My first experience working in healthcare marketing was in the UK- where I worked for a private insurance company called British United Provident Association (BUPA). I had to learn quickly about the NHS. Later, I joined Aetna as director retail strategy for its Group insurance products. I was approached by Aetna while working at American Express – specifically because I had not worked in healthcare or insurance. Back then, in 1996, the second-sale (to employees) was still rather new for contributory and/or voluntary products—also, for health products, as most of the cases were “total replacement.” This would change of course, requiring an increase in business-to-consumer marketing. I later moved to Aetna’s health insurance marketing team, becoming their first general manager for e-marketing (back when the web was new!). At the end of 2000, I was recruited by Empire BCBS to be their chief web officer. That role grew to include more marketing functions. In 2005, Well Point and Empire BCBS merged, and I went on to oversee the Marketing of Group and consumer products for WellPoint. After leaving WellPoint, I joined North Shore LIJ Health System as their chief branding officer and head of marketing. Currently I teach marketing, including healthcare marketing, at NYU.
What do you see as the greatest barrier to health care literacy and education?
Brooks: The industry is extremely complex— health insurance, health conditions, medications, health care providers, types of care and services, etc. – and after working with hundreds of marketing professionals during my career, I strongly believe that the education has to begin with the marketing team creating the strategy, the products, the programs, etc. Most industry professionals working in marketing are not necessarily experts in the industry– rather, many are functional experts (e.g., direct marketing, or advertising or database experts). Most of the burden to communicate resides with the writers (aka, the “creative” team).
From a customer or member or patient or employee perspective- the barrier to literacy and education is timing. If I don’t need to know right now, do I have to learn this, right now? Most say, no. So how to get people to read/learn/pay attention/plan, when they don’t need the product/the service/the care?—that’s a challenge. But approaches can be tested and results (response) tracked.
What is the biggest opportunity for innovation and/or creativity in health care communications?
Brooks: Getting people engaged in the topic before they need the information or service. Using a combination of the many tools available (such as social media, events, conferences, collaborations, etc., in addition to traditional channels), and the techniques that work in many other consumer products (e.g., integrated marketing).
What are your worry items for successful health care reform execution?
Brooks: The worry is that lack of education and follow through will cast a shadow on the health care reform efforts. Consumers and businesses may look to blame someone for implementation that is not executed or communicated correctly- and it’s so easy to blame health care reform as a whole. For example, think of the insurance plan member at the drug store blaming the insurance company for a drug not being on the formulary—when it may be that the insurance product was sold as an ASO (administrative services only), and it was the Group that made the decision. Or when a physician group decides not to take any form of insurance, and the patient blames the insurance company.
Name 1 thing the U.S. should learn from other countries’ health care reform experiences?
Brooks: That it takes time to implement, and perfect. Thinking of countries that implemented a health service from “scratch, “ note that many did not ‘reform,’ but rather, they implemented. We cannot ignore the complexity of our system—just TRY to explain it to someone from another country.
Understanding the demographics of the uninsured, should marketing strategies change? If so, how?
Brooks: Absolutely, they should change. The ‘barrier to entry” varies not just between the insured and the uninsured, but also among the subgroups of the uninsured as well. If you think of the well known Four P’s of marketing— each one will vary for the uninsured: the Products are different, the Price points and payment channels are different, the Distribution channel (Place) is different, and finally, how to reach this target, which channels to use, and what to emphasize in your message (Promotion)- is all different. Thus, the strategy has to vary.
How can marketing strategies help health consumers find utility in health insurance when they are healthy?
Brooks: Too often, the conflicting business priorities across the healthcare industry, results in conflicting messages, all leading to potential consumer confusion. For example, Insurance companies want you to ‘buy’ but not necessarily ‘use,’ whereas care providers/health systems/pharma, want you to use– frequently. In addition to these groups, there are several more- all with their own business objectives and marketing strategies. The consumer of healthcare is taking in all of these messages and instructions…. or not. Insurance marketers should look at all the other messages—formulated by, for example, pharmaceutical companies, employers, fitness companies, diet companies, physicians, etc. If we step back and look at all of the messages, and align better with those, we may be able to better educate consumers, and create clearer calls to action—since insurance (for the insured population) is a platform for so many of these other services/products and messages.
As a professor, what can you pass on to current healthcare students?
Brooks: In the health care marketing course, I begin with a look at the past—how did we get here? Followed with a look at the current situation (where are we now?), and finally, an overview of HCR (where are we headed?). In all three sections (past, present, future), the role of insurance companies, hospitals, and other industry groups (participants) has evolved (and is expected to continue to change). As we review the changes—we are reminded that change is a constant, one that is best dealt with, with an open mind.