Six Commandments of Equitable Healthcare Marketing

Everyone knows that health inequity is the biggest challenge facing global healthcare, so why does it sometimes feel like marketing missed the memo? Disparities in access to health services deprive population groups of optimal care, creating unfair and avoidable differences in patient outcomes. Marketing is part of the solution. However, there are times when—unintentionally—it only exacerbates inequities. It’s time we fixed it, to ensure healthcare reaches all appropriate patients, not just the chosen few.

Examples of healthcare marketing punching below its weight are not uncommon. The foundations are often laid in product development, but when gaps in research find their way to marketing—and are allowed to pass unchallenged—they limit the reach of both the messaging and the medicine. And health inequity is the inevitable outcome.

A Recent Example of Health Inequity

While researching an idiopathic condition, we came across some eyebrow-raising statistics in the patient profile: sufferers—overwhelmingly—were white women, aged 35-70, with private health insurance. In a condition with no known cause, could it really be that the only ones affected were white women with financial means? It seemed unfathomable.

Our team was working with a company known for breakthrough innovations and patient-centricity. Despite this, unconsciously biased data had slipped through the cracks, limiting our appreciation of the real people behind the patients, and ultimately undermining equity potential and marketing effectiveness.

The scenario will be familiar to marketers everywhere.

Yet marketing is often the entry point to healthcare and can make the difference between a person seeking care or remaining undiagnosed and untreated. In healthcare systems inaccessible to many, marketing must reach and relate to all who may benefit.

To ensure our work reflects the experiences of patients from all backgrounds, changes to health marketing processes are vital.

Issues within Current Marketing Processes

For the condition we were researching, the path to diagnosis averages 4.5 years and is full of pitfalls, false-starts, misdiagnoses, and barriers to care. Many prospective patients exit the journey before their condition is identified, making them ineligible for treatment. These patients become invisible to marketers, unrepresented in demographic data, and unlikely to see disease education. Gaps in patient data are especially common for conditions requiring multiple doctor visits, specialist consultations, and rounds of expensive tests to diagnose and treat.

This complex pathway busts the myth that a single, generalized patient journey leads to effective marketing.

Journeys and personas are necessary strategic tools, and it’s often convenient to have an all-encompassing journey. But unless they’re informed by—and accurately reflect—diverse patient backgrounds and experiences, they can’t help marketers develop true-to-life strategic and creative outputs. The answer is not endless journeys addressing the experiences of every imaginable patient, but additional consideration and nuance to make the generalized journey relevant to as many of those experiences as possible.

Too often, health marketing features ethnically ambiguous or mixed-race representation to add a subtle spice of diversity to materials. This dilutes meaningful nuance while adding no value to the work. Ethnically ambiguous marketing is just another shade of White.

It’s easy to agree healthcare marketing should be more equitable. But tying action to good intentions is a challenge when it requires change—particularly when that change is perceived as onerous, costly, or contrary to accepted marketing practices. However, steps towards equitable health marketing need not be daunting seismic shifts. They can be a series of meaningful steps that can be immediately implemented.

Making our work more representative starts with recognizing and questioning when we may be acting on biased information and making decisions by default, or on heuristics rather than facts. It’s about uncovering true disconnects between people, culture, and organizations. In doing so, we ensure our output speaks to the entirety of our audiences, especially those who have been overlooked.

The following commandments can help us progress towards equitable and inclusive marketing. If marketers embrace these as a starting point, we’ll make an outsized impact in closing the health equity gap—improving marketing effectiveness, and, crucially, creating better patient outcomes.

The Six Commandments

1. Start with diverse data sets. When data is inconclusive, err on the side of inclusion. Talk to more people. Broaden your focus through additional qualitative research, desk research, or social listening. More inputs equals better understanding.

2. Reject the notion of a universal patient experience. Patients are not a monolith. Seek to uncover differences and nuances in diagnosis and treatment journeys. Talk to patients. Build a human, person-centered understanding of diverse experiences. Consider outliers to the journey (e.g., compounding conditions, socio-economic challenges, pain points, etc.) and connection points within the journey too.

3. Co-create with a diverse group of patients and HCPs. Build diverse teams that represent and reflect the cultural nuances of your target communities. Empower individuals to lead—not advise—and work with them throughout the process; long-term not one-time engagement.

4. Ensure inclusion and representation in all materials. Don’t default to “mixed” or “ambiguous” races to represent minorities. Internal materials and patient-facing communications should be grounded in the culture of inclusion, ensuring different groups are represented in ways that speak to their distinct experiences.

5. Invest in the process of change. Put your money where your mouth is. Increased budget for research, testing, experts and other resources is essential. So too is preparing for bumps in the road. Change can be challenging, but if you invest in it—financially and culturally—equitable health marketing can help eradicate disparities.

6. Empower your teams to advocate. Encourage calling out work that ignores a significant patient group, lacks meaningful representation, or is offensive. Reinforce your culture of inclusion with a culture of empowerment that mobilizes everyone around the goal of achieving equity for patients.

Equitable health marketing isn’t about representing everybody, it’s about representing all the relevant patient groups for a particular disease. That’s nuanced. It starts with asking the right questions and building a culture of inclusion that truly puts patients first. And putting patients first is the ultimate commandment for us all.

  • Mitchell Geller

    Mitchell Geller is Director of Strategy and Insights at VMLY&R New York. Since joining the agency in 2015, Mitchell has worked across the healthcare and CPG spaces, developing and implementing impactful strategies to connect brands with patients and consumers in meaningful ways.

  • Snehal Lochan

    Snehal Lochan is a Senior Experience Strategist at VMLY&R New York. As a Forrester CX Certified strategist, Snehal puts her skills to use to ensure the best holistic experiences for key clients are developed and executed to create real and sustainable growth. Going above and beyond her role to clients, Snehal is also deeply involved in VMLY&R’s efforts to create a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable culture that promotes, and uplifts BIPOC talent.

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