Credit card companies, airlines and hotels all have customer loyalty programs. Maybe it was only a matter of time before hospitals got in on the act.
A growing number of hospitals are seeking to attract new patients and keep existing ones by offering them an array of perks, from free parking and gift-shop discounts to wellness seminars and health screenings. Some of the most popular programs are social mixers that have nothing to do with health care. Field trip to a casino, anyone?
It's all part of a changing competitive environment in which hospitals market themselves directly to patients, who have begun to take a much more active role in choosing their health-care providers -- and are on the hook for a greater share of the costs.
Before managed care, hospitals focused more on appealing to physicians with new and advanced medical technologies, experts say. Physicians, it was thought, would bring in the patients.
Changes in health-care policies are giving hospitals added incentive to develop relationships with patients. Under the 2010 health-care overhaul, hospitals with higher than expected 30-day readmission rates for heart attack, heart failure and pneumonia will face financial penalties starting this year. The number of conditions subject to penalty will be expanded in subsequent years, and hospitals can help themselves by working with patients before they land in the hospital with an acute problem.
"Hospitals will have an expanding share of risk in their patient populations going forward," says Tony Paquin, chief executive of Paquin Healthcare, an Orlando consulting and technology firm that has worked with more than 150 hospitals to develop loyalty programs. "Health-care providers are just starting to figure out that they need to develop patient relationships if they're going to improve their health long term."
Botsford Hospital in Farmington Hills, Mich., started issuing free "Very Important Patient" cards in 2010. The program got its start as a referral service to link potential patients with Botsford doctors. The cards entitle VIP members to free parking and a 10 percent discount on nonprescription drugs at the outpatient pharmacy and the gift shop, says Lynn Anderson, marketing and public relations manager at the 330-bed hospital in the Detroit suburb. VIP members can also get discounts at restaurants and service establishments such as an oil-change garage.
The program, which has more than 900 members, is open to anyone in the community. In addition to financial perks, it offers regular health education seminars on such topics as hip replacements, back problems and acid-reflux disease, says Anderson.
"This is a way to get a mailing list and send them information," she says. "In this day and age, with so much competition, you need to make a connection with patients."
Luanne Dunigan, a 78-year-old retired nurse, signed up for Botsford's VIP program after receiving a letter from the hospital. Dunigan had never been a patient at Botsford Hospital, but she told her grandson to take her to the emergency department there twice recently, once when she was having trouble swallowing and again when she had chest pain.
The VIP program was a factor in her decision, she says, and she was pleased with the care she received. "It was the best hospitalization I ever had."
Since becoming a VIP member, Dunigan has parked for free and received discounts at the gift shop when visiting a friend.
She's also looking forward to taking advantage of another perk offered through the program: social events. VIP members get a free one-year membership in Generations, a Botsford Hospital program for people 50 and older that organizes outings, including trips to the symphony and theater as well as luncheons with lectures on health and other topics. Membership is normally $15 annually. Dunigan says she's especially looking forward to taking one of the overnight trips to a casino in Canada. "Now that I've retired, I plan to take advantage of those trips," she says.
One of the most popular loyalty program events sponsored by Baystate Health, a four-hospital system in Springfield, Mass., is the annual "Spirit of Women" conference, says Tracy Whitley, manager of loyalty programs. Up to 400 people attend the event, now in its 14th year, which showcases a nationally recognized motivational speaker. The conference also gives hospital officials a chance to showcase services they offer related to women, such as the comprehensive breast cancer center and urogynecology, she says.
Baystate also offers a range of free educational health programs aimed at women and at people age 55 and older. "We like to build relationships with all people, and hopefully they will use our services in the future," says Whitley.
These sorts of marketing activities make sense, say experts. "Customers will go to a provider and judge the experience based on things that they can understand: good food, ease of parking, attentiveness, nice sheets," says Paquin.
John Romley, a health economist at the University of Southern California who co-authored an article in the New England Journal of Medicine about the increasing importance of amenities in patient care, concurs. "Patient preferences about where they receive care seem to turn on creature comforts and amenities," he says, rather than on health-care-related measures such as complication or infection rates.
While there are no data to show that loyalty programs encourage patients to get unnecessary care, Romley says these marketing efforts are in some ways analogous to drugmakers' controversial advertising that "reach[es] out directly to consumers in order to have them drive the medical decision-making to a degree and have them demand the expensive drug," he says.
As for those casino trips? "It has nothing to do with what the hospital does," he says. "It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's rather indirect."
Please send comments or ideas for future topics for the Insuring Your Health column to firstname.lastname@example.org.