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Take 3 with Dean Browell: A Conversation on Healthcare Marketing Trends

healthcare marketing

This year I have been inspired by friends in a CEO peer group called CEO Stars.

One of them is pretty famous for his work with national CMOs in AdAge – Drew Neisser. Drew’s work with CMOs really excites me, because my favorite part of this job is meeting new creative minds and sharing and solving problems.

So I began to ask friends like Dean Browell ­– who is on the national board of the Society for Healthcare Strategy & Market Development (SHSMD), peers, clients (past and present), and even competitors in healthcare marketing to “Take 3” and discuss trends they see developing or explore challenges and opportunities.

Since I know this is asking a lot of very busy folks, we added some motivation. For every interview, Access will make a $500 donation to Make-A-Wish, with the goal being to produce enough interviews every year to grant at least one wish.


Take 3 with Dean Browell, PhD, Executive V.P., Feedback

It would be hard for me to discuss trends in healthcare marketing without consulting with Dean Browell first. He’s about the smartest and coolest (a rare combo) person I know. In addition, as a member of the board of directors he is very plugged into the SHSMD, the nation’s largest and most prominent voice for healthcare strategy and marketing. Here’s Dean’s Take 3.


  1. Dean, you are one of the marketing leaders for SHSMD, so you know I have to hit all the buzzwords today. Give us your take on healthcare consumerism. Is this really here to stay or just jargon and hype?

I tend to approach the consumerism discussion from a different angle than most – not just because I enjoy being contrarian, but because I always look at things from the behavioral angle of the audiences first. So with that said, the concept of “consumerism” has always really been there, if only at the periphery in healthcare. There’s always been a consumer; the American patient has always seen their healthcare interactions as transactions (just slow ones), even if the provider never did. In the last 10 to 20 years with the ubiquity of information online and consumers connecting to peers and beyond, they’ve been able to hear their own voices and feel empowered to push back on a system that they were more reliably quiet within. So I’d tweak the question to say: is the empowerment of the consumer to ask for a better transactional culture here to stay? Oh yeah. That’s not going anywhere.

Now, that said, it seems like a million “experts” on consumerism have leapt out of the woodwork to help teach healthcare what the retail world is like. And the problem with that is not all retail lessons or consumer culture actually translate or even matter to the patient-consumer. I think that it’s very important that whomever a hospital or healthcare entity works with has experience outside of healthcare; but I also think the best partner is the partner that knows the consumer is outright telling you what they want and listening to them can help provide the roadmap. 

I guess I would say that as a behavioral researcher, heh. But the most consumer-y of consumerism’s entire preface is that the consumer is not just happy to tell you what they want – they’re watching carefully to see if you’re listening.


  1. How about value-based care? Can you see this as a truly viable growth segment for the big providers like HCA and Community Health Systems (CHS)?

 The orbit around value-based care will do more for the provider and the consumer than the actual tip of the spear will, in my opinion. That’s partly because (not unlike consumerism) the concept of value-based care is being a bit co-opted by other forces so that it’s not even really clear to the consumer what it might mean. The pursuit of value-based care really does have efficiencies in mind – and as those efficiencies are realized, there are PR spoils to be won. On the patient side, they’ll get better outcomes and better quality – but they’ll also be able to make better, more informed decisions about their care so they can favor quality. One side effect is that the provider will have a much better internal ladder for positive outcomes which they can then tout and turn the volume up on, which will influence the patients earlier in their decision journeys. These outcomes won’t be tainted by some late-game irritant like an errant, giant bill for one test they had on the journey, which can screw up even the best stories of care. 

Of course, the other reason for all of this is to tackle population health. In my opinion, value-based care is one of the smarter, more tangible ways to try and affect that. “Population health” is something everyone loves to throw around, but beyond the platitudes, it’s tough to see it as a growth area. I It’s a squishy, vague set of goals that doesn’t line up all the time to the “heads in beds” KPIs; but if you make it an end goal of value-based care, you can see it as an end of those means. 

So really it comes down to systems not being able to afford to ignore value-based care. It’s coming, and when it does, you’ll want to ride that wave – not be crushed by it.


  1. What do you see as the biggest challenge for healthcare companies and marketing in 2019?

I’ve touched on this in the earlier answers, but it really is true: the empowered consumer. It’s been the biggest challenge and it will continue to be in 2019 as mergers and acquisitions meet the empowered consumer. 

The history of healthcare is built on a structure of a provider who has the power – whether that’s the beloved town doc to the giant system. While the big healthcare giants have gotten bigger the last 20 years, the consumer has started to swing that empowerment pendulum in the background. One of my favorite things to remind healthcare folks of is that healthcare used to be the pillar of the community that created and maintained affinity groups (new moms, cancer patients, etc.), but it’s been two decades since they were the lead in that. We’ve done audience research in some of the largest cities in the U.S. and we almost never find a hospital-related affinity group even charting in the top 10 of channels a potential patient might encounter, which means the hospitals aren’t in the virtual room when healthcare decisions are being talked about or decided – where they used to literally own the room. Now add in the effect of reviews, the ubiquity of peer opinions and narratives – it’s like healthcare woke up one morning and was just another service a consumer is cynical about.

Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) are now viewed by many consumers as a scramble to get that power back, by crushing rivals as opposed to improving care (whether that’s the actual motive or not is irrelevant – it’s what they think). You can’t look at healthcare in a vacuum because the consumer doesn’t – and can’t. Average consumers’ lives are filled with M&A fights, and they aren’t always on the winning side of the battles – their media outlets, their entertainment, their grocery stores. So they’re understandably skeptical and healthcare needs to take that into account as it slowly morphs into a dozen or so entities. The bigger the system gets, the less emphasis is put on actually feeling local, and the change is in some cases immediate. I’ve seen it with my own eyes – a large system shutting down reviews or individual Facebook pages because of centralized marketing – and the consumer sees that as a clear signal that local doesn’t matter. This is an opportunity for the #2 and #3 entities in a market to exploit, if they are aware of it. But it also means that entrants like the minute-clinic armies of CVS aren’t just going to find easy footing because of convenience (although that will be part of it), but because the cynicism is so high that all it takes is a not-alarming/semi-pleasant flu shot experience to convert brand loyalty anymore.

So, marketing has to be the one that comes to the table with an awareness, a willingness to listen, and appreciation for both the healthcare company and their audiences. And part of that awareness of the consumer needs to come from outside of healthcare so you can understand their entire lives and where healthcare fits in. The empowered consumer is here to stay and healthcare companies need partners that know how to navigate that fog, not pretend it isn’t there. For some reason, this approach is rare in our industry; only some partners get it. We work with agencies all over the world and I can unequivocally say that Access is absolutely one of those that does.


Footnote: Dean’s company, Feedback, specializes in developing contextual Voice of the Customer (VOC) research through digital channels for large, global brands. They help marketing professionals deeply understand their customers in ways that tools and automated technologies simply cannot. Using a unique HumanFilter system to conduct ethnographic research into very specific audiences, they employ data scientists (from fields such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology) to observe behaviors, identify preferences and channels, and analyze findings. They then provide clients with action plans based on the research, which often lead to higher levels of customer engagement and greater sales.


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