How to Turn Accountable Care Organizations Into “Hot Brands”

October 27, 2016

// By Andrea J. Simon, Ph.D. //

Andrea SimonA colleague called me not long ago to discuss his dilemma. He had the opportunity to join an ACO (Accountable Care Organization) and was perplexed, to say the least.

He is a smart guy, but the options before him were overwhelming:

  • Should he look for a hospital-based ACO?
  • Should he join a new doctor-driven ACO?
  • Should he watch and wait and see what happens?
  • How would he practice “value-based care” when fee-for-service worked fine?
  • What would he tell his patients about his new practice?

My colleague is not alone. As physicians are evaluating whether to participate in ACOs, they are facing a new reality, one that demands they change their practice processes, reduce health care utilization, and improve wellness for the patients they care for. They must now refer to new specialists, coordinate their patients’ care, and use data and information systems in a new, more integrated way.

How can I help my colleague feel better about the decisions facing him? For me, a corporate anthropologist and marketing specialist, the answer is very clear: Leverage the power of branding, brand storytelling, and omni-channel communications to (1) clarify what is coming, (2) reduce the fear of the unknown, and (3) make the new highly desirable.

Part of the Challenge Facing Doctors Today: Consumers Are Changing As Well

For clarity, just take a look at what today’s consumers are doing in response to their own health care decision processes. The 2015 American Hospital Association (AHA) Environmental Scan reveals that “nearly 70 percent of organizations that report a transition toward value-based contracts by payers in their markets also reported an increase in consumerism by patients through such actions as asking for more price transparency, challenging orders for tests, and negotiating payments.”

Overwhelmingly, today’s consumers are now going online to search for the right solutions to their health care needs. In fact, a recent Pew Internet & American Life Project found that “80 percent of internet users, or about 93 million Americans, have searched for a health-related topic online … That’s up from 62 percent of internet users who said they went online to research health topics in 2001.”

For those whose physicians are part of an ACO, they might be aware that their physicians now have a Medical Home and maybe want them to be part of a chronic care program, but they aren’t sure what that means for them. Neither are they clear about the new network of specialists their doctors want them to use to coordinate their care. Might they, like my confused colleague, also need a new, emotionally comforting, clearly understandable brand? Resoundingly, yes.

One Brand, Two Brands, or Which Brand?

You are probably wondering whether this requires one branding strategy or two. Actually, you need one strategy to build the trust needed among physicians and staff operating within an ACO, and then a second brand for consumers, patients, and communities trying to evaluate different ACOs. Recent efforts at Dignity Health in Arizona provide a good illustration of how to take on this multi-pronged branding strategy in the most efficient way.

Dignity was tasked with bringing a new ACO into the very competitive market space. This required recruiting new physicians, building its Medical Home models, and reduced readmissions, all while experiencing an 8 percent reduction in Per Payment Per Month (PPPM) medical costs (as of 2012). This meant Dignity needed to find effective ways to educate its physicians about how to achieve high-quality care while keeping costs down to make this model work.

Dignity also had to educate patients about the benefits these changes would bring to their experiences. Dignity tackled these branding challenges by creating an intensive systematic process to communicate with its physicians, thus providing avenues to market to them and also keep them up to speed on developments. Dignity also created data sheets that provided an overview of key elements of the ACO model and how it works, along with highlights of responses to questions from the market, so everyone would be on the same page moving forward.

Further, Dignity also realized that as it went “live,” it needed a branding and communications strategy targeting consumers. Dignity accomplished this second tier of the task by calling on the physicians and other clinical staff to communicate with patients and to explain the benefits they could expect from the new model. Dignity also called on clinicians to emphasize the key elements for customers, including value, coordinated care, and moving from fee-for-service to fee-for-value. This way patients could feel good about embracing the changes and trying something new, and clinicians could feel good about knowing patients were satisfied by what the ACO was providing, too.

Why Branding, and Why Branding Has to Be “Hot” Now

My colleagues and I regularly work with other ACOs that have a similar challenge ahead of them as their leadership attempts to tell and sell their story, both within their system to medical professionals and also beyond the health care setting to their existing customers and other target audiences.

If this sounds familiar, here are some of the common concepts to consider as you address this tall order:

  • Convince physicians that their ACO is the right one for them.
  • Show them after they join that it was the right choice.
  • Help those physicians understand the data and change their practices to reap the benefits from shared savings and preferred payments.
  • Establish legitimacy for the new ACO among patients to reduce leakage.

What’s more, leadership and physicians will need to understand that brands and branding play a crucial role in this process. Here’s why:

  • Powerful brands and branding convert facts into emotional reasons why someone should choose a solution, whether it is a product, a service, or an experience like medical care. If done well, brands make it easier for people to make a decision, reduce the risk associated with that choice, and enable them to emotionally defend their actions. Branding captures the essence of something and legitimizes the emotional side of a decision. For example, cardiovascular centers do a very good job of marketing the way their procedures and therapies restore people to active lives, not the science they use to eliminate atrial fibrillation.
  • Building brand equity for this emerging market requires a great deal of talking to people and telling the brand story. This is not a short-term service line marketing campaign. It requires ongoing, repetitive, focused, and differentiating marketing and communications strategies to achieve all of these multiple goals simultaneously. This might require a health care organization to create and sustain a multimedia and experiential marketing campaign using patient stories, patient/physician testimonial videos, and omnichannel advertising about how its new chronic care program, for example, is helping diabetics better manage their health.
  • Branding strategies are as important for internal branding as they are for external brand development. People within the ACO must “live the brand” that is being promised to the external world. This means they must know what the brand is supposed to represent and how they should be delivering on it. From office managers to nurse practitioners to care coordinators, they, like the physicians, have to share a common set of brand stories to explain why they are recommending particular care solutions to a patient—one story told by different people in a consistently powerful, compelling way. In practical terms, this could mean realizing that the health organization’s office staff is a team. They should be encouraged and enabled to build the patient experience together, then test it with patients to see what works.

Brands Answer the Question: Why You?

In changing times like these, everyone in health care is asking two key questions:

  • How do we create and communicate a brand that will make our organization the place to go for health care?
  • Or has the industry become so commoditized that people will go anywhere that’s the right price with an assumed quality?

Faced with these major uncertainties, many ACOs are realizing that their branding, as never before, has to make the case for what they stand for. If they merely develop catchy slogans or redesign their logos, they will have missed the point, because today’s consumers will see right through it and move on.

You see, branding is not about your color palette or typeface or stationery letterhead. It is about who you are, what you stand for, and why someone should choose you rather than “the other guy.” Especially in health care, and especially now, branding is about communicating the kind of experience people can expect when they walk through your doors.

In this competitive environment, ACOS, and every health care organization for that matter, have to go beyond the expected and create compelling stories that separate them from the rest. And then tell those stories, clearly and repetitively. That is the only way they are going to not only survive out there but thrive.

Andrea J. Simon, Ph.D., is a corporate anthropologist, President of Simon Associates Management Consultants, a strategic management and marketing consulting firm specializing in working with organizations that need or want to change. An author of the highly acclaimed book On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights, she speaks widely on how to adapt to the rapidly changing health care environment.