In many respects, St. Louis, MO, in the heartland of America, is a typical hospital marketplace and serves as an example of the national trend in hospital advertising of proliferation. Competition is increasing, and in this metro area, hospital marketing and advertising reaches out to the consumer public frequently and constantly. But it isn’t without critics and questions.

A recent article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch presented an overview of the St. Louis healthcare market where—as with many other areas of the country—“health systems and hospitals are using marketing and advertising dollars to compete for patients and promote their brands and niches, from maternity to stroke care.”

The reasons for the rise in hospital advertising can be tracked to the ongoing changes in the nation’s healthcare delivery system, and, for most providers and facilities, the dramatic increase in competitive pressures.

The goals of hospital advertising include patient education and practical business objectives. “I don’t think it ever hurts to remind someone that there are lots of choices that you have if you’re dealing with a major health issue,” according to St. Louis University Hospital’s Laura Keller. “We need to educate the patient, and there are good messages there. On the business side, people need to understand that without money we cannot support our mission,” she said.

But as marketing and advertising proliferates, the process struggles to redefine itself and answer two critical and interrelated concerns:

Budget vs. Benefits: One critic quoted in the Post-Dispatch article questions “whether hospitals should spend so much money on promotion and advertising. It’s siphoning money away from healthcare. Advertising shouldn’t be confused with taking care of patients or improving patient care.”

We’d like to hear your reaction. But from our prospective, the vast majority of hospital marketing has patients and patient benefits squarely in mind. In fact, empowered and engaged patients and prospective patients expect and demand more health and wellness information and services from providers and facilities.

The Missouri Hospital Association responds, “Marketing and advertising is core to our mission to educate the public, [including] promoting better public health by reminding patients of the need for preventive screenings such as mammograms.”

Image vs. Effectiveness: Healthcare Success Founding Partner Lonnie Hirsch was quoted in the Post-Dispatch article: “The success of a marketing campaign comes down to strategy and messaging. If a campaign’s goal is branding alone, the results will be difficult to track. It is much easier to gauge results if the campaign tends to drive people to take an action rather than just be aware of the value of the institution,” he said.

We welcome your thoughts. Have you experienced a public “push-back” to hospital advertising? Has your marketing plan achieved measured results that benefit the patient, the provider and the business side of the organization?

We think the comments from SSM Healthcare-St. Louis are typical of most healthcare institutions: “The primary purpose of our marketing is to provide information to our community so that people understand and can make informed choices about using the services we provide. [We] try to be prudent in those expenses. For us, health care is a social good, not a commodity.”