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Should Consumers Trust Hospital Advertising?

Blog | 
Outcomes | 
System Dynamics | 

Unless you’ve been on a ventilator because you decided not to get a free vaccine from about anywhere that could have saved you from a deadly virus, you probably know that U.S. News and World Report just released it latest annual ranking of the best hospitals in the country.  

It’s not that you would have gotten the press release announcing the Best Hospitals ranking. It’s more likely that you know from the hospital advertising blitz that immediately follows the ranking’s release. We’re No. 1!

But how reliable is that advertising in helping consumers decide where to go for their hospital care?

As it turns out, it’s not that helpful. At least according to an interesting study recently published in JAMA Network Open. You can download the study here.

Researchers from Yale University and the Congressional Budget Office wanted to know how prevalent hospital advertising is and if there is any difference in outcomes between hospitals that advertise and hospitals that don’t. 

Using data from Kantar Media, a market research firm, the researchers studied the advertising practices of an average of 4,569 general acute-care hospitals a year from 2008 through 2016. Over that nine-year period, 49 percent of the hospitals in the study pool advertised their services to consumers, spending a total of about $3.4 billion.  

The researchers then compared outcomes between advertising hospitals and non-advertising hospitals. The four outcomes were: mortality rates, readmission rates, patient satisfaction star ratings and overall star ratings. There was virtually no difference between the two sets of hospitals over the study period:

  • The mortality rate at advertising hospitals was 12.0 percent compared with 12.7 percent at non-advertising hospitals
  • The readmission rate at advertising hospitals was 15.6 percent compared with 15.5 percent at non-advertising hospitals
  • The average number of patient satisfaction stars at advertising hospitals was 3.2 compared with 3.3 at non-advertising hospitals
  • The average number of overall stars at advertising hospitals was 3.0 compared with 3.1 at non-advertising hospitals

The hospitals that advertised tended to be not-for-profit, bigger and more profitable than hospitals that didn’t, the study found, with “no observed association between hospital advertising and performance.” 

“A person choosing a hospital based solely of whether they advertised would have, on average, no better odds of picking a higher-performing hospital than if they were choosing at random from the set of hospitals within their HRR (hospital referral region),” the researcher said.

Ouch!

Once again, we see that hospitals are businesses, and they behave like businesses in any other industry. Businesses that can afford it advertise to attract customers. It’s the same with hospitals. Those that can afford it advertise to attract patients.

Further, advertising has nothing to do with the quality of a product or service or with customer service. Have you ever hired a plumber or ordered a pizza just because you saved a coupon from a mailer? How did that work out for you? 

Being a smart healthcare consumer is harder, and it’s going to take a lot more work to get good at it.

Thanks for reading.

About the 4sight Health Author
David Burda News Editor & Columnist

Dave is 4sight Health’s biggest news junkie, resident journalist and healthcare historian. He began covering healthcare in 1983 and hasn’t stopped since. Dave writes his own column, “Burda on Health,” for us, contributes weekly blog posts, and manages our weekly e-newsletter and weekly podcast, 4sight Friday and 4sight Roundup. Dave believes that healthcare is a business like any other business, and customers—patients—are king. If you do what’s right for patients, good business results will follow. Follow Burda on Twitter @DavidRBurda and on LinkedIn.