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Health - Business & Entrepreneurship

Drexel Study: 'Hospitals Spend a Lot of Money to Convey the Same Message'

March 4, 2019

Person holding a newspaper

The Philadelphia region has one of the highest concentrations of hospital services in the U.S. Yet, the print advertising themes for these hospitals lack variation, according to a study conducted by two health administration researchers at Drexel University.

Their finding is based on analysis of hospital ads placed in a special weekly health section of The Philadelphia Inquirer for a three-year period, May 2013 through April 2016.

"We believe that hospital advertising creative teams may not be aware that they are using the same themes of either 'patients' or 'health providers' as their focus," noted Stephen F. Gambescia, PhD, co-author and professor of the marketing health services course in Drexel's College of Nursing and Health Professions. "There is certainly nothing wrong with using 'high touch' advertising attributes and focusing on patients, but it flies in the face of a primary marketing principle to differentiate among your competitors, especially with such a high price service as health care."

The ads were organized into six types according to their major themes. Each theme was made up of the ads' primary and secondary attributes and the use of images or words.

After carefully reviewing close to 170 ads during the time of the study, the researchers found the most-used, primary attribute overall was "patients," which appeared in over one-third (35 percent) of the ads. The next was "health professionals" at 27 percent. On the lower end of the themes, "technology" and "procedures" were primary attributes of only four and three percent of the ads, respectively.

Graph of Frequency of attributes in print newspaper ads by hospitals 

"We concluded that hospitals are true to the marketing objective of 'winning the hearts' of healthcare consumers by using patients as the main model in ads," said Caichen Zhong, who coauthored the study as a student in health services administration program. "But hospitals seem to be spending a lot of money to convey the same message."

The researchers said you could display a series of ads from hospitals, with the name and logos redacted, and you would not be able to discern one hospital from another.

The study found few ads featuring medical technology or specialized procedures that could help hospitals to differentiate themselves.

"We were really surprised how little 'branding' was used as a hospital ad theme," said Zhong.

However, when they combined primary and secondary attributes, "branding" rose to the top, but general health services, specific procedures and technology advancement were still well behind. The researchers found this surprising, as these are the actual services that hospitals deliver.

Graph of frequency of attributes in print newspaper ads by hospitals  

"Branding is a way to gain frequency exposures, telling readers 'we are the best' or at least 'we are here to serve you,' Zhong adds.

Speaking of serving the community, the researchers were at a loss as to why not one of the advertisements in three years said anything about the hospital's contribution to the health of the community.

"Here we have an enduring challenge for hospitals to push beyond their bricks and mortar and think about population health," said Gambescia. "But there was no space to talk about their role in the community's health."

According to the researchers, the Affordable Care Act is one of a long line of incentives to get hospitals thinking more about community care; but if you consider what they are 'selling,' so to speak, through these ads, the health of the community is not evident.

The study, "Attributes Used in Hospital Services' Advertisements in a Metropolitan Newspaper's Sunday Health Section," was published in the February 2019 issue of Health Marketing Quarterly.

Media Contact:

Annie Korp