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 E-patients.net.

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