Please fill in the blanks for this simple statement: My local hospital __________is great because it ______________. Don’t have affinity for a local hospital, you say? That’s too bad. Wouldn’t attach the qualifier “great” to the hospital you most frequent? That too is unfortunate.
One of many ways the Affordable Care Act is meant to transform healthcare is by putting the onus on hospitals to keep patients away. Yes, keep them away. And the reimbursement model to facilitate this – accountable care organizations (ACOs) – places financial responsibility on providers to improve care management and limit unnecessary expenditures without compromising favorable patient outcomes. No easy task.

Without arguing the merits of ACA provisions or ACOs, one fact stands out: hospitals must quickly adapt communications practices to patients to whom they are accountable WITHOUT necessarily knowing who those patients are. Try building a campaign for that. Since the population is undefined, hospitals can’t just communicate with known patients – they must, in a sense, speak to everyone.

Another name for “speaking to everyone” is marketing, and marketing, especially advertising, can theoretically reach everyone if infinite budget exists. But infinite budgets are fantasy. So that’s why today’s forward-thinking hospitals must become increasingly creative. So are they?

To be fair, it may be too early to judge our Massachusetts-based ACOs, which include Atrius Health, Beth Israel Deaconess Physician Organization, Mount Auburn Cambridge Independent Practice Association and Partners Healthcare. Certainly, as hospitals that comprise these ACOs mature in the new model, we’ll likely see more evidence that accountability has fundamentally changed how they communicate.

For starters, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages are de rigueur across the hospital landscape. But what else can/should they be doing? Do best practices even exist? The answer is yes.

Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, part of the Partners ACO, has its Health Hub Blog and is actively experimenting with Pinterest. I’m sure Brigham doesn’t think its Pinterest page is THE answer, but who’s to say it won’t contribute meaningfully to better health and fewer visits. Sure, so far only one person has “re-pinned” the story about flu vaccine, but what if that one person avoids a hospital visit this year? You see, pins can add up.

Photo: Brigham and Women's Hospital - Pinterest Page 2012

Photo: Brigham and Women’s Hospital – Pinterest Page 2012

I’m not suggesting that social channel activity is the litmus test for ACO success (or success for non-ACOs either). Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, as part of the Atrius ACO, provides access to the MyHealth Online Mobile App, from which patients can view test results, reply to messages from a clinician’s office or view upcoming and past appointments. This is just one of many new ways smart devices and applications have already evolved from differentiator into necessity.

We’re still in the early stages of ACA transformation, ACO transition and patient revolution, so the best is certainly in front of us. So whatever your opinion is of the ACA, it’s time to acknowledge that the train has left the station. Now, as a communicator, you must play an active part in making this grand experiment work. After all, effective, highly integrated communications that encourages new behaviors and promotes long-term patient engagement will one day be remembered as a critical success driver of healthcare reform. You’re not a bystander in all this!

If you’re unsure of how to get started or why, think back to the fill-in-the-blanks exercise above. If you’re the local hospital patients think of first (i.e., they won’t go outside the ACO) and your people and facilities have a reputation for greatness (quality, efficiency, wellness), it’s likely your brand story is resonating. And if it’s resonating, it is just as likely that your business-sustaining campaign – stay healthy and stay away – is working too.

Scott Bauman is executive vice president at Greenough. Follow him on Twitter @sbauman