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Bariatric Surgery Is Now An Accepted Phrase in Our Lexicon

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November 01, 2016

Recently, Healthcare Marketing Report explored effective bariatrics advertising campaigns, including the award-winning campaign created by Miami ad agency, The Weinbach Group. The article describes the thinking behind the ads developed by the Florida healthcare advertising agency. It also includes interviews from medical advertising experts including the head of a Texas-based digital healthcare marketing firm.

Read the entire article below from the November issue of Healthcare Marketing Report.

MIAMI, FL It used to be that bariatric surgery seemed like an exotic service line for a healthcare organization. Even though its roots go back many decades, this was a specialized service line that many consumers were not familiar with. This contrasted with weight loss, a phrase that has had outsized use as the diet market has experienced explosive growth over the years. Losing weight has become a common topic of conversation among many, particularly in recent years as studies come out showing the high percentage of Americans who are overweight or morbidly obese.

One of the markers of a concept coming into the general lexicon might be television. Big Love, a fictional series about plural marriage on HBO, and Sister Wives, a reality television show on TLC, have become conversation points among many as they discussed families that live in this matter. Also, on TLC is My 600 lb Life, with each show portraying an individual who weighs between 600 and 900 pounds, their struggle to lose weight, and their eventual acceptance into a bariatric surgery program run by Younan Nowzaradan, M.D.

The show began in 2012 and dramatically illustrates the challenges of the morbidly obese and the benefits to be gained from this surgery.

The American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS) is the largest national society for this specialty, with nearly 4,000 members practicing in the field. According to the Society, the numbers of bariatric surgeries between 2011 and 2013 grew by 15 percent, with 179,000 total surgeries in 2013. Within this total, the largest growth was found in sleeve gastrectomy, which captured 42.1 percent of the volume, up from 17.8 percent in 2011.

Promoting Sleeve Gastrectomy in Miami
The Jackson Health System in Miami is one of the largest public health systems in the country. It has maintained a bariatric surgery program for a number of years. For much of this time, its marketing strategy focused, in part, on testimonials with before and after shots of patients. This contrast can make quite an impact. For example, a picture of someone who clocked in at 320 pounds ahead of surgery and afterwards is down to 180 pounds can stick in one's memory for a long time.

However, "this is a very competitive market," says Adam Taylor, Director of Creative and Brand Integrity. "For our latest campaign we decided to try something different. We tried to relate to the individual who is contemplating bariatric surgery. They have tried diets and exercise and it hasn't worked."

The hospital's goal is to spin weight loss as something that would make the individual healthier. Perhaps because of their weight, they had high blood pressure, diabetes or other chronic conditions significant weight loss could help them with these conditions.

"A lot of people shop around for bariatric surgery," he says. "We're fortunate in that our surgeons are well known in the community and have developed new techniques."

The intent of the hospital's advertising is to drive prospective patients to a seminar hosted by one of the surgeons. Also present at these seminars are psychologists and psychiatrists to handle some of the mental issues that may present themselves for someone going through this surgery.

The campaign's tagline is appropriately, "I'm Ready To Be Healthy!" with the message in one ad focusing on "Obesity. It's not always about willpower. It's not always about exercise. It's not always a choice."

The ads promote the gastric sleeve weight loss surgery, a technique that, according to the hospital's website involves "removing 70-80 percent of the stomach in a vertical fashion, leaving behind a banana-like tube which creates a restrictive process in which patients can eat much less than before. Because we are not rerouting the intestines, there is no malabsorption and there are no food restrictions."

The campaign launched in November, 2015. Each advertised seminar attracted between 30 and 45 people. Over its first eight months there was a 14 percent increase in seminar registrations. Additionally, since some of those registered might not come, another statistic that is important is the percentage increase in actual attendees. That went up 24 percent as the campaign rolled out.

Taylor says that at this point of the campaign the percentage increases in these seminars is the best metric to evaluate the advertising campaign. Matching the campaign to numbers of surgeries becomes more uncertain because there are some who go to the seminar and follow-up medical appointments but are found not to be eligible for the surgery for either insurance, health or other reasons. However, perhaps there are other non-surgical strategies that can be used to help them with their weight loss goals. Additionally, for those who eventually do the surgery, the lead time might be three to nine months from the time they attend the seminar.

The Informational Seminar at Valley Health
For Valley Health, a six hospital system based in Winchester, Virginia, bariatric surgery marketing focuses on both referring physicians and consumers. For the referring physician population, the focus is talking with them about the co-morbidities and diseases that often accompany patients who are morbidly obese. Among these are: diabetes, high blood pressure, and bone and join issues.

"For consumers, we lead with getting them to take a seat in a class to learn more," says Carol Koenecke-Grant, Vice President Strategic Services. At that class people learn about bariatric surgery and the co-morbidities and diseases that can go along with carrying too much weight. For those interested in considering the surgery, there are other more detailed seminars they can attend as they move toward the procedure.

Radio, online and print advertising is used to promote the seminars. One recent ad shows an empty chair with the headline "attending the sessions costs you nothing. Not attending could cost you much more." The ad stresses that the information session is only 60 minutes long.

The digital part of the campaign is being tracked. For April, for example, 12 prospective patients registered for the seminar. Overall, 3,876 impressions were experienced and there was a 91 percent share rate so the campaign was getting pretty good legs for a modest expenditure, she says.

Independence Day at Nash
Rocky Mount, North Carolina, is about an hour east of Raleigh. The community has a higher instance of obesity than other parts of North Carolina and the nation. As such, the bariatric surgery program at Nash Health Care is an important element of the organization's services. "Our feeling is that we do bariatric surgery as well as anybody," says Jeff Hedgepeth, Director of Public Relations and Marketing.

When it came time to create a new campaign for this service, Hedgepeth worked with the healthcare organization's agency, the Rocky Mount-based Lewis Advertising. For one of his early meetings with the agency, he took the unusual step of including some former weight loss patients as well as the coordinator and manager of the weight loss program.

The agency presented a variety of possibilities for the campaign. One of those Hedgepeth liked the most. That was not shared by the rest of the group. Rather, "all of our former patients and the coordinator and manager of the program liked 'My Independence Day,'" he says. "For everyone who has gone through this surgery the day that they have the surgery sticks in their mind as their independence day."

The former patients chosen for this advertising campaign all had their surgeries some time ago. That was the point. "Some patients after weight loss surgery revert back to regaining the weight," he says. "We continue to follow patients for a long time and talk to them about the lifestyle changes that they need to make."

The four people chosen for the testimonial campaign all had the surgery about five to six years earlier. Merry, who had the surgery on October 6, 2009, says that she has lost 10 dress sizes and is now doing mud runs with her grandkids. Aaron is shown out on the water wearing a wet suit with the date of his independence day on the front 11/17/11 and saying that he is now living life to the fullest.

The campaign debuted just after July 4, 2015 and included print, radio, television and online components. Six months later the campaign was scaled back as the healthcare organization began to focus on some other service lines.

Results surprised Hedgepeth. For bariatric surgery, there is typically a significant lag between initial interest and the surgery itself. For this period of time the first two months after the ads started running results were about on par with prior years. Then volume rose significantly.

The Web as a Key Element
Allen Buck is President of Asclepius Marketing, a San Antonio-based company that focuses on web design for bariatric surgery. Right now his principal clients are in Texas, New York, and Las Vegas. He argues that the web ought to be the preferred channel for bariatric marketing in areas of the country that are highly competitive. "In larger markets it's like shining a flashlight on the sun," he says.

On the other hand, "in smaller markets it may make great sense to do traditional advertising," he adds. "Maybe it's a town with two radio stations that people really listen to."

Once a bariatric surgery web site has gone live, Buck recommends that there be frequent changes to the site. One educational change that makes a lot of sense, he argues, is writing blogs focused on topics that patients ask about frequently. Doing this helps the practice save the time it takes to answer the same questions again and again. It also helps with successful organic search strategy as prospective bariatric surgery patients plug in various questions they want answers to and find the practice's site coming up at or near the top.

Buck has never been much of a fan of before and after pictures of patients undergoing bariatric surgery. "It has certainly made our job easier, but for the most part I think that patients tune that out," he says. "They think that what they're seeing is a star patient that may not necessarily apply to them."

However, he still recommends the use of photos on a web site with the focus not so much on the patient's physical appearance but rather on the patient discussing their doctor's skills, professionalism and manner. Also, something else to be highlighted from these patients is the lifestyle changes they have been able to achieve after the surgery.

Ideally, he says, the patient's participation would be done using video as it would provide a stronger interaction with the prospective patient.

Buck says that there is a particular flow to how a bariatrics web site is utilized as the patient moves from their initial visit to making the decision to have the surgery to their post-surgery life. Deciding to proceed with the surgery may take a number of months or even a year or two of discernment. In the beginning "people look at the site a lot as they wait for insurance verification," he says. "They look at the videos over and over again. After their surgery they look at the web site a lot less."