Gather ’round people wherever you roam and admit that the waters around you have grown

— from “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Bob Dylan

The American healthcare system was ripe for change in 2010. Established relationships are being reshaped and new alliances are forming. In this climate of change, it’s not unusual for seemingly strange bedfellows to emerge. 

The relationship between occupational health and women’s health services is a prime example of a somewhat unexpected, but logical, pairing. While these two service lines do not necessarily seem to be synergistic, a closer examination reveals they are closely intertwined.

Healthcare organizations are discovering that by joining forces, occupational health and women’s health programs can attain considerable visibility in the marketplace.

“Something new and unanticipated arose from many of our consultations during the past year,” said Roy Gerber, national director of consulting services for RYAN Associates, specialists in occupational health program development and professional education. “A growing number of occupational health programs are becoming more active in using their employer base to help their organization’s women’s health program market its services through the workplace.”

Surging interest in women’s health services is fortuitous for occupational health programs. Injury incident rates are declining, the national unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent, and workers’ compensation reimbursement is restrictive in many states. Consequently, occupational health programs are looking for ways to gain market share.

In many instances, vertical integration of services such as wellness programs, executive health, and travel medicine is embraced as part of efforts to boost program revenue.

Women’s health can be leveraged in a similar fashion with an added bonus – the business opportunity is far greater than the aforementioned service lines. Women’s health programs can grow in multiple directions by introducing new patients to a health system or physician group and educating current patients about the myriad of relevant services offered. However, while experts say this significant segment of the population can be cultivated through astute and aggressive marketing, the development of effective outreach strategies is not a particular strength for the majority of women’s health programs.

Understanding the Potential

According to Charles Barrett, M.D., a Los Altos, Calif., obstetrician/gynecologist with more than 30 years of private practice experience, there is extraordinary potential for well-conceived, highly integrated, and aggressively promoted women’s health programs.

“Such programs create enhanced brand recognition for the organization and spread interest beyond those patients as they network with friends,” he said. “Increased screening exams generate multiple ancillary services since many patients are certain to receive mammograms, cholesterol and glucose testing, dietary, sexual and hormonal evaluations, and numerous other treatments.”

Dr. Barrett said healthcare organizations tend to undervalue the potential return on investment associated with women’s health. For example, one can reasonably expect 100 new patients to generate 90 Pap smears, 50 mammograms, 75 laboratory analyses, and 20 consultative follow-up visits. In addition, patients who are satisfied with the care they receive are likely to access a wide range of services through the same health system or medical practice for years to come.

“One can reasonably expect 100 new patients to generate 90 Pap smears, 50 mammograms, 75 laboratory analyses and 20 consultative follow-up visits.”

Meanwhile, the role of women’s health is evolving. Richard Derman, M.D., chair of obstetrics and gynecology for the Delaware-based Christiana Care Health System, believes the women’s health program of the near future will feature considerably more personalized medicine, genetic testing and counseling, and online activity. He also foresees an increased focus on family medicine and pediatrics, prenatal care, and nutritional counseling. He expects patient management to incorporate the application of sophisticated risk-stratification models and routine use of electronic medical records.

The vital role of an organized, comprehensive women’s health program is to help “create an identity with the system,” he said. “It is important for the organization to emphasize, and build upon, its core clinical competencies.” One of the most effective ways to reach women, Dr. Derman noted, is by acknowledging their inherent role as family caregivers and enabling them to apply what they learn through women’s health educational offerings. He said the great promise of women’s health as an integrated discipline is largely a byproduct of “a future that will likely be tied to increased personal responsibility in order to help manage soaring health care costs.”

A Model in Action

HCA Business Health Services in Richmond, Va., recognized the opportunity about a year ago. Women’s health now comprises a major component of its outreach activities. The effort was so successful in 2009 in terms of generating revenue and goodwill that HCA plans to replicate the model in other regions in 2010, reports Matt Moyer, program director.

Business Health Services’ overall objective is to help client companies reduce costs and sustain a healthy workforce through all available avenues. In consultation with human resource managers and company-based occupational health professionals, it became apparent that women’s health was a leading cost driver.

Women’s health was first introduced at a major company and then expanded to other worksites. Activities include screenings, health fairs, and a free monthly seminar series. One leading employer broadcasts each seminar via the Internet to its other locations in the country. The average attendance is 38 employees per site.

A “massage and mammography party” for groups of female employees has also been exceptionally well received in Richmond. Group health insurance covers the screening. In the first nine months, the average monthly attendance was 42 participants. At least six women were referred for additional testing and intervention after the initial evaluation.

“We have four imaging centers in Richmond,” Mr. Moyer said. “We open them during special hours for these ‘social gatherings.’” In the coming year, pediatrics – a natural extension of women’s health – is targeted for a workplace outreach campaign.

“What I would tell occupational health programs that are considering leveraging women’s health services is to consider the downstream benefits,” Mr. Moyer said. “For instance, one primary care physician who spoke to a women’s group at the workplace got 31 new patients as a result. So far, no doctors have turned down the chance to speak.”

In addition, since more than one-fourth of patients using HCA hospitals in Richmond do not have health insurance coverage, it makes good business sense to cultivate relationships with the insured working population.

“If we can target companies that provide health insurance to their employees, where is the downside? That got our CEO’s attention,” Mr. Moyer said “You have to get in front of the key employers, build relationships with the employees, and help them get to know your doctors.”

Service Confluence

Frank Leone, founder and president of RYAN Associates, sees a marked similarity between the evolving women’s health landscape and occupational health circa 1985 when he started his company.

“Women’s health mimics where occupational health was in 1985: a series of related, yet highly fragmented, services that beg for cost-effective integration and state-of-the-art marketing. The difference is that women’s health outreach has the potential to be vastly greater.”

Mr. Leone notes the following similarities among women’s health and occupational health programs. Both are:

  • Gateways to health care organizations.
  • Well advised to reach out to large constituencies: employers and women, in general, and working women, specifically.
  • Primary-care oriented.
  • Positioned to offer wellness and preventive medicine counseling.

“The basic relationship between the two business units involves the marketing of women’s services,” Mr. Leone said. “Traditional outreach such as mailings and advertisements are as outdated as the Edsel, yet they continue to be a mainstay of many women’s health programs.

“Reality suggests that women’s health programs should primarily market themselves through the electronic media that are so central to today’s occupational health marketing function. The workplace is a compelling venue for effecting modern marketing tactics.”

According to Mr. Leone, the central goal of marketing a women’s health program is to reinforce brand awareness and educate consumers about the range of services that are available to them.

“Many of the same techniques that I recommend for marketing occupational health services apply exceptionally well to the women’s health market, including education, email blasts, the creation of user networks and interactive websites,” he said. These techniques require consistency and repetition to educate women about all available services. Since the majority of women are working, the employer portal is a logical place to start.

Marketing Basics

Mr. Leone said a basic women’s health marketing plan should take advantage of an associated occupational health program’s workplace connections by pursuing activities such as:

  • Offering live and/or audio seminars on women’s health issues. Educational programs drive brand awareness and help educate the consumer base.
  • Reaching out to individual companies to ensure that topics are geared to the specific needs and desires of that company and its workforce. For example, Dr. Derman said alternatives to hysterectomy, incontinence, sexual function, and age-specific health services have all been popular lecture topics in the Delaware market.
  • Creating a massive email network using contacts from women’s health outreach campaigns in combination with all relevant occupational health contacts.
  • Using an extensive database to distribute email messages containing women’s health tips and updates. The format should enable forwarding by recipients to other groups of women not yet in the database.
  • Sponsoring women’s health chat rooms for free-form discussion on specific topics.
  • Emphasizing one-on-one referrals, as appropriate, from occupational health providers to women’s health services providers.

In summary, integrated women’s health and occupational health services could become the “next big thing” in health care, especially if the workplace is astutely used as a vehicle to reach women with the message that their health, and the health of their friends and family members, really matters.

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