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The hard message hospitals should embrace

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I'm not going to say it's a lie, this cornerstone of health marketing, because blanket statements are rarely accurate.

But it's close.

By "it," I mean the twin assumptions that new equals better and better equals worthwhile.

Sometimes they are true, and in those cases I have no argument to make. But sometimes they are not, and in those cases I submit to you that, at the very least, hospitals often squander excellent opportunities to help their communities.

Why we tend to believe new equals better isn't hard to understand. It's not restricted to health care, and it often comes naturally — and probably would even if advertising of every sort were not drumming the message relentlessly into us. Consider cars, computers, cellphones — when is the last time the message wasn't that the new one is better?

Actually, in those examples, it's possible you did hear a conflicting message, because those products generally have active reviewer communities assessing their every aspect. Health care, with its labyrinthine layers between consumer and choice and cost — not to mention the significant knowledge base required to understand medical technology — is quite different. Health systems end up making most of those calls by virtue of which technology they purchase and which treatments they recommend.

Given the cost and quality problems our health system has, purchasing and recommending are, therefore, two great opportunities for hospitals to make a difference by carefully considering the merits and costs of the technology they plan to purchase and the projects they pursue.

But the incentives are aligned against that sort of action. We, the consumers, want amenities; we're not great at assessing quality of care, but we know we like fancy new things. And according to a new study, hospital leadership follows those cues and gives us what we want instead of what we need, paying CEOs more for fancy medical technology and high patient satisfaction than for keeping more patients alive or providing extensive charity care.

You see how this is a bad cycle, right? And how much reason hospitals have to keep acquiring and touting new, cutting-edge technology, regardless of whether it's objectively a good idea?

There's no denying that we, as consumers, bear part of the blame for this situation, and I'm happy that health care seems to be heading in a direction that might eventually begin addressing that. And, again, some innovations are legitimately worth what they cost.

But lately, when I see yet another health care ad touting yet another new technology or amenity, I find myself wishing that some daring organization would turn the paradigm on its head and run ads touting a decision to stick with the old way of doing things because it's cheaper and just as effective. Or that some significant donor would sign onto a project with the express stipulation that it include no bells and whistles, just good, solid, evidence-based care.

That would, I think, be an excellent way for an organization to distinguish itself.

Heather Stauffer

Heather Stauffer

Heather Stauffer covers Lancaster County, nonprofits, education and health care. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at heathers@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter, @StaufferCPBJ.

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