Imagine yourself the owner of a restaurant. Three customers enter
and sit at the same table. The first orders a few select items from
your menu while the others sit passively. When the food is served, the
second does all the eating, and the others look on. When it’s time to pay the bill, customers one and two announce that customer three will
review the tab and pay whatever he thinks is reasonable, regardless of
your menu prices. Sound crazy? Welcome to the world of health care
Under prospective payment, many hospitals are exploring for the
first time what used to be an almost taboo area–the marketing of health
care services. Historically, hospitals shunned this activity, for
obvious reasons. They had a virtually captive market, and the
commercial promotion of medical services was considered unprofessional
at best. Times have changed fast. Health care administrators are
hitting the marketing books, investigating opportunities, and coming up
with innovative ways to attract new customers.
One of the first tasks in any marketing program is to identify your
potential customers and pin-point which of their needs your product will
satisfy. This is relatively easy when selling detergent or automobiles,
but in health care, it’s considerably more complex.
The lab, like the restaurant just described, must deal with three
customers at once. The first is the physician who orders the test; the
second, the patient who supplies the specimen and receives treatment
based upon lab results; and the third, while not often considered in
this context, is the insurance carrier who pays the bill.
Past practices have centered attention on customer one, the
physician. For years we emphasized the provision of ever more
sophisticated testing. Batteries of tests with fast turnaround times were developed to assist in making an accurate, timely diagnosis, with
little concern for costs or patient convenience.
Now the pendulum has swung toward satisfying the needs of customer
three, the third-party payer. This party, whether government program or
private employer, is grim about the ravages of health care costs on the
national debt–and on bottom lines. Insurers will no longer willingly
pay charges or even costs for their enrollees’ care. Instead,
they’re setting maximum hospitalization payment rates and shopping
around for the best deals.
What about the poor guy in the middle, who actually consumes our
services? For years, patients accepted physician decisions
unquestioningly throughout their course of treatment, but no more. In
this era of competition for inpatient and outpatient clients, the health
care consumer has become a valuable commodity to be actively recruited.
Patients will no longer accept whatever hospital their doctor
recommends; they’ll speak up for one located closer to home, or one
equipped with the niceties they demand. Prospective payment has made
the competition for outpatients especially acute. Clinics and labs are
cropping up in consumer-friendly spots. Many new medical technologies
will someday find themselves working in shopping mall labs or other
easy-access locales. Even house calls may stage a comeback.
Our customer the physician expects high quality results in the
least time possible. Technological advances over the last few decades
have been geared to satisfying this goal, and we will continue trying to
The patient as customer also wants fast, accurate results–but at
the right time and place for his or her life-style. Satisfying this
need may be easier than we anticipate. Lab scheduling adjustments could
go a long way toward maintaining good consumer relations.
Finally, we must meet the demands of our bill-paying customers to
obtain service at the lowest cost available. Here is the real
challenge; trying to hold down costs after years of spiraling inflation,
and trying to change the long-held attitude that more lab services are
These goals may be different, but they are not mutually exclusive.
As we work to maintain and improve our level of service, we should be
able to attract and hold onto our valued customers–the whole varied lot