October 8, 1999

Preference for VUMC services on rise in region

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This year, the rain stayed away. The walkers, however, didn’t. More than 5,000 people turned out for Sunday’s American Heart Walk, the American Heart Association event that raises funds for heart disease and stroke research, public and professional education and community service programs. Most participants were part of company teams, raising money from family, friends and co-workers to sponsor their walks with a donation. Please see"Heart Walk '99" for more photos of the event.

Preference for VUMC services on rise in region

Vanderbilt University Medical Center's popularity is on the rise.

According to a recently concluded survey of attitudes and preferences, consumers across the region are becoming much more favorably disposed toward VUMC health care services and view the institution as a premier provider of those services.

Based on the question, Overall, which hospital do you prefer to use for your individual or family health care needs?, preference for VUMC jumped 49 percent, from 7.8 percent in 1996 to 11.6 percent in 1998. Vanderbilt tied St. Thomas in this overall category; the two hospitals trailed Baptist, which has a preference share of 15.2 percent.

Vanderbilt placed a close third in this overall preference category, behind Baptist, which has a preference share of 15.2 percent, and St. Thomas, which has a preference share of 11.7 percent.

“The most recent survey shows dramatic positive improvement,” said Joel Lee, executive director, medical center communications.

“A 10 percent jump in preference in a year would be considered good,” said Joel Lee, executive director of Medical Center Communications. "But we’ve had average annual increases of nearly 25 percent over the past two years, which is phenomenal.”

The survey, conducted by National Research Corp., sampled the opinions of 1,900 consumers in 57 counties over a span of two years, from 1996 to 1998. Respondents were left unaware of the identity of the survey sponsor.

Lee uses the surveys to help guide marketing strategy by gauging consumer attitudes and awareness at both the corporate level and the patient care center level. “Surveys are to marketing as vital signs are to patient care.”

He said the key measures in the recent surveys are hospital of choice, specialty hospital of choice (in the event that your first-choice hospital is unable to provide the care you need), quality of physicians and quality of nursing care.

Preference share roughly doubled from 1996 to 1998 for five VUMC programs: Trauma (now at 40.1 percent), Cancer (now at 23.6 percent), Emergency services (now at 18.1 percent), Orthopedics (now at 17.3 percent), Cardiology (now at 15.5 percent) and women’s services (now at 9.1 percent). Pediatric services jumped from a preference share of 23.6 percent in 1996 to 38 percent in 1998.

“These are extraordinary increases,” said Ron Hill, vice president for strategic development. Asked which of the survey results he considered to be the most significant, Hill pointed to the jump in preference for VUH as a specialty provider, the gain in perceived quality of Vanderbilt doctors, and “the sheer percentage increase across the board.”

Lee notes that people’s choice of health care providers are based on personal experience, word of mouth and what they see, hear and read in the media. Like other hospitals, Vanderbilt tries to influence consumer perceptions through advertising and media relations.

In 1996, VUMC launched its first advertising campaign, designed to raise awareness of VUMC's broad range of services and high quality of care. VUMC spent around $4.5 million per year on advertising and media relations in fiscal years 1998 and 1999, and will spend the same in FY 2000. This amounts to a modest three-quarters of one percent of total hospital and clinic operating expenses.

“Some medical centers spend up to three percent on advertising,” Lee noted.

Besides advertising, another element in Vanderbilt’s favor is its strong media relations program, conducted by the Office of News and Public Affairs. “With regularity, we’re managing to garner valuable coverage on the front page of the Tennessean and at the top of local newscasts,” Lee noted.

The 1996 survey provided a base line at the start of the VUMC ad campaign. The survey in late 1998 provides a base line for upcoming ad campaigns promoting individual VUMC product lines (a VUMC heart campaign is already under way). Using a smaller sample size, Lee plans to repeat the survey three times in FY 2000.

Another use of survey results is to help persuade community providers and third-party payers about the value of new and continuing relationships with VUMC.

“Consumer preference for VUMC certainly does provide leverage in contract negotiations,” said Steve Norton, director of sales, customer relations and contracting, Vanderbilt Health Services. “Several of the managed care organizations have acknowledged a growing demand among their customers for VUMC to be included in the network. The demand clearly didn’t exist two years ago to the extent it does today.”