The blurring lines between consumer retail and healthcare: the case of Mt. Siani

This winter, while perusing the subway marketing — which offers the longest impression a marketer can hope to achieve with New Yorkers these days — I noticed something new on the train walls. It wasn’t an ad for a one-year-old startup offering suitcases for your wanderlust or bed linens for the affordable luxury metropolitan market. It was something else positioned as cutting edge and innovative — the kind of place you’d want to work for or buy from. It wasn’t an ad from a snazzy millennial-run company, but from a hundred-and-seventy-year-old, massive hospital. As large companies are being disrupted by innovative start-ups, large hospitals are finding themselves in the same boat, fighting for market share as their primary path to growth. Now even the old hospital guard has decided to try out some new tricks.

Healthcare companies, primarily in the startup space, have been behaving more and more like CPG start-ups over the past few years. If tracked by subway ads alone*, one could say it started with Capsule, the prescription delivery service. Capsule has helped lead the direct-to-consumer movement in healthcare products. Followers in their footsteps include Hims, Inc. a “health and preventative self-care” company providing an erectile dysfunction product, and Hers, Inc., a birth control provider which advertises “without accessibility, there are no solutions.” Their ads are now plastered on the walls of West 4th St. station and the turnstiles of Times Square.

It appears that large hospitals like Mt. Sinai are feeling just as exposed to and inspired by competing startups as large CPG companies have been over the last decade. Taking a page from the consumer marketing playbook, Mt. Sinai is working to capture mindshare with subway ads. Notably, their ad featured services for the blind — in black-and-white print. You could guess a pragmatic motive, marketing to caretakers of the visually impaired. But with their other patient attraction efforts, it’s more likely they are trying to tap a new market – the millennial. Mt. Sinai is also partnering with a strong brand to win in another market segment: the male market. Through its recent partnership with Man Cave Health, Mt. Sinai is leveraging their unique market positioning – a sports theme – to attract men to it’s healthcare services – in this case prostate health education and care.

There’s another market local practitioners have noted Mt. Sinai’s active sales and marketing efforts in – the elderly poor, with Medicare and Medicaid benefits. And according to independent doctor’s, rather than posters and upgraded, sports-themed waiting rooms, they have used their own nurses and doctors to drive patient conversion. Several private specialists in Harlem have noticed a number of patients leaving for Mt. Sinai, sometimes at their front door. “St. Jude’s, a Mt. Sinai affiliate, used to park its van in front of our entrance,” one doctor noted, “and offered services to my patients.” Another doctor commented, “My patient was surprised when I was no longer covered by their insurance. It turned out on her last hospital visit, her doctor recommended switching from one Healthfirst insurance to the Mt. Sinai Healthfirst insurance. Now only Mt. Sinai services are in-network for her. She didn’t realize that was happening.” Mt. Sinai, it seems, is behaving like any large, mature company. To grow, it must reduce costs and take on new markets. Unfortunately, that means healthcare continues to become more of a business, where hospitals may focus on bringing in patients more than quality of care.

The business of health today increasingly resembles consumer retail, with a growing focus on consumer appeal and patient attraction and retention. But not all aspects of healthcare delivery benefit from business thinking. Perhaps consumers have come to expect slick marketing campaigns in other realms, but personally, I don’t want to be marketed to; I want quality care delivered.

*The measure of New York famous. Includes Dr. Zizmor, but also fast growth startups like FIGS scrubs.