Category Archives: public health

Health records and dying babies: Marketing against inertia

This CBS clip above shows how actor Dennis Quaid’s baby twins were almost killed by a nurse in 2007. A week after being born, his twins developed a common staph infection. Staph is easily cured with 10 units of heparin, but Quaid says a nurse grabbed the wrong bottles and gave each baby a massive overdose of 10,000 units. Quaid and his family recovered, but Quaid became an advocate of so-called Electronic Health Records — the use of computers, not paper, to track your body’s history.

Call it the tragedy of group inertia

Your local hospital or physician likely uses vast amounts of paper to track your health — paper with no backup, that cannot be searched, that cannot be quickly checked to avoid mistakes. About 100,000 U.S. citizens die each year as a result of hospital medical errors. The Certification Commission for Healthcare Information Technology notes that small medical practices, say with 20 physicians and assistants, can save $250,000 a year simply by replacing manual chart pulls with electronic records. It’s obvious computer systems could improve public health and reduce costs, so why aren’t hospitals jumping on such modernization?

Solutions that require consensus from group decision-makers, even those with obvious benefits, are difficult to sell.

When demand is disconnected from supply

President Obama has earmarked $46 billion to help U.S. hospitals invest in patient records, but those funds are reimbursements, and cash-strapped hospitals must grapple with the upfront investments, training, and installations. Unlike products that are marketed easily by single companies with profit motives, Electronic Health Records are a more complex sale — requiring decisions by hospital boards, service line executives, and chief medical officers. The dramatic benefits in cost reductions and improved patient care arrive years in the future, while costs must be budgeted today. Patients themselves, the actual real beneficiaries, have little incentive to get involved, because most people rarely use health care — until they get sick — so the issue has as much top-of-mind awareness as whether your local fire department has enough hoses.

Compare this tar-pit morass with the “normal” $400 billion global ad industry. In common marketing dynamics, suppliers profit quickly by stimulating obvious demand. Geoffrey Miller notes in Spent that when Coca-Cola bought GlacĂ©au in 2007 for more than $4 billion, it began running ads of a nearly naked Jennifer Aniston — pushing demand for a product that works out to $5.20 per gallon vs. $0.006-per-gallon tap water. Is bottled water really better? No matter. The customers gained desire. The company gained profits.

But what about services where desire and profit are not clearly connected — say, fixing aging bridges, keeping public water supplies clean, or using low-tech bar codes to save little babies’ lives? Like cleaning out your garage, such missions fall through the cracks when distant (but real) paybacks don’t stimulate demand to take action, and inertia takes over. Add the requirements that entire groups agree before action, and the issues stall further.

The way to market against inertia is finding pressure points that move groups to action. We’ve seen this recently in the antimarketing against public healthcare reform, where the labels “socialism” and “death-panels” fueled groups to push against a fuzzy, complex issue. There are people with power in bureaucracies who can be convinced to take the lead and incite others to action. Mr. Quaid alone can’t stimulate demand for the Electronic Health Record solution, but he gave it a nice push.

Via Susannah Fox and

It’s a beautiful day for cancer

2008 was the year online video got longer. The grainy segments on YouTube faced new high-def competition from Vimeo; YouTube responded by experimenting with sharper formats; and took off with full TV shows and movies, all for free. The pundits who said in 2007 that ad spots longer than 15 seconds would never work online appear to be wrong, as consumers begin settling down for deeper entertainment from PCs and cell phones.

Here’s one sweet example — a 3-plus-minute music video promoting skin health for the Cancer Council of New South Wales in Australia. The piece, by Naked Communications, is obviously meant to go viral — you can just see 18-year-olds chuckling over it on an iTouch in the back of class — so let’s break it down: catchy music riff; beautiful bodies that are hard not to watch; and a message that sinks in like the mole on this dude’s back. With every passing second the hero Al Bino looks cooler and cooler. What we love about this format is it is one long, powerful impression. In a world where so many ads blip by without being seen at all, longer video may be better.

Now we’re off to call the doc — need an appointment to get the moles checked.

Via Consumer Psychologist and Cow.

Deconstructing the asterisk*

*Angela Natividad praises J&J and TBWA/Chiat/Day/NY for this campaign encouraging young athletes to stay away from steroids. At first, we thought this was creepy — a bit of a slam on the poor kids who struggle with acne. And then we realized this is brilliant. The only way to get the message out is to have the target pay attention, and acne or skin blemishes are such a pain for teens that they’d probably tune in to this spot to see the outcome.

Marrying an ugly habit with physical ugliness is a risk, but we won’t forget it.

The open market niche: Profiting from environmentalism

Here’s a feel-good idea for the New Year: What if you could make money by saving the planet?

Recycling gadgets will get more attention in 2008, as 70 million TV sets go obsolete. By February 2009, the FCC will force all TV broadcasters to convert to digital signals, turning millions of old cathode ray tube sets into pretty black glass boxes. Many of these old TVs have 4 to 8 pounds of lead in the screen. You better believe recycling gadgets will hit the major news wires by next fall.

Consider the 500 million used cell phones in the United States, with a combined total of 312,000 pounds of lead. Dump them all in local landfills, and that lead heads for groundwater … and we were worried about Chinese toys? Cell phone batteries also contain cadmium, a human carcinogen that causes lung or liver damage.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if a company had the foresight to profit in advance of an environmental concern? What if a Sony or Apple or AT&T repositioned themselves as a national resource for gathering old gadgets, beyond their own products? We bet they’d make a boatload of money in new gadget sales.

Until then, we offer four ways to clean out the junk drawer for the New Year.

1. Drop off old cell phones at a cell phone store. Most carriers will recycle them, or even donate the old phones to victims of domestic violence. Verizon, for example, has a HopeLine recycling program that has kept 200 tons of electronic waste and batteries out of landfills.

2. If your old gadget seems to still work, punch it in to This web site will give you a quote to actually buy your old technology, and if you accept, it will send a free shipping label for you to drop it in the mail.

3. One of the best things you can do is find out where to take old batteries. About 3 billion batteries are sold in the U.S. each year. Call to Recycle offers locations for battery recycling nationally.

4. For general information on recycling, the web site Earth911 lists local resources that will accept batteries and all forms of electronics.

What will Google do with a time machine for world health?

The concept is brilliantly simple: The best way to understand data is to animate it so you can watch trends over time. Go to Gapminder and you can plot variables against each other, and watch bouncing balls shift and wobble as the years roll by.

Gapminder is really Trendalyzer, software developed by Swede Hans Rosling to plot world health trends. Google purchased the software back in March, and we’re waiting to hear if Google will do anything with it other than juice its web analytics tools. Rosling was just honored by Discover Magazine as a Notable Scientist of the Year.

The way data jumps off the page is quite startling. The above screen shot, for example, is one part of an animation showing how faster economic growth in China vs. India correlates with increases in carbon emissions. The software also helps assess if there is no connection between two variables; liberals in the United States will be pleased to find that increases in military spending appear to have no impact on U.S. fertility rates.

Until Google releases an update, healthcare policymakers can be tempted with limited data sets here.

The children on the bus go round and round

Sometimes in the buzz of our world a little black hole opens up to create a communications vacuum. This entails a noteworthy cause that almost everyone would say is important, if you asked them, but one that almost no one does anything about.

Like school bus seat belts.

Each year in the U.S., 440,000 public school buses travel more than 4 billion miles to daily move 25 million children. Ah, children. U.S. parents do anything to keep them safe. We outlaw lead paint, get mad at China for shoddy toys, and when transporting our own tots, strap them into mandatory child seats and drive off in modern cars equipped with air-bags, side air-bag curtains, crumple zones, headrests, daytime running lights, and anti-lock brakes.

But send a child to school, and they don’t use seat belts. Today’s kids enter a bus with technology that hasn’t changed much since Dr. Frank Cyr and his friends at Columbia University decided to paint buses yellow in 1939. The last serious innovation in school bus technology came in 1977, when the U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards created construction standards to make sure school bus roofs do not collapse when they roll over. No one talked much about the little heads rolling around inside, or whether seat belts would keep those heads in place.

This void in communications is intriguing, since demand for child safety seems to be high and bus accidents happen all the time. Google “school bus accident” and the screen fills with news reports. This past summer, a school bus fell off a collapsing bridge in Minneapolis. Counselor Jeremy Hernandez was called a hero for helping kids get off the bus, but he told CNN that as the bus fell surrounded by tons of crashing concrete, he and others flew over the seats. Just yesterday, on Nov. 10, another school bus in Hanover Township, Pa., crashed over an embankment after two wheels fell off. A few — just five — states have done something about this, with lap belts now used in NY, NJ, California and Florida, and Alabama Governor Bob Riley announcing on Nov. 6 that his state will “test” seat belt usage on, ahem, 12 buses across the entire state.

We don’t know why the case of missing school bus seat belts, like some others, fails to cascade communications. Perhaps there are only two things that drive human awareness: Private profit or public advocacy. If profit can be made, marketers build advertising plans to get the word out. If advocates are impassioned, Al Gore gives Apple Keynote presentations until we all believe in global warming. But for pedestrian, boring, complicated causes, such as investing in little black belts for little laps, the message just falls into a vacuum.

Sort of like a yellow school bus sliding toward the Mississippi River.