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Cooking Up A Successful Hospital Merger Transition

• Author: , Vice President/Sr. Creative Director

Cooking Up A Successful Hospital Merger Transition

Merging hospitals and healthcare systems is a little like making a giant pot of chili.

(Before I’m arrested by the Forced Metaphor Police, please allow me some poetic leeway. I certainly don’t mean to trivialize the very difficult challenges that accompany the merger of such complex organizations… in addition to the reality that careers and communities can be impacted by such mergers. Nor, for that matter, do I mean to trivialize the making of chili, which is taken very seriously in many kitchens, including mine. I’m simply employing a metaphor – or simile, more accurately – to make a larger point. I’ll try not to ladle it on too strong.)

Even after the chef combines the onions, peppers, garlic, chili powder, tomatoes, more chili powder, ground beef, beans, black pepper, cayenne and more chili powder – honestly, I’m not sure you can ever add too much chili powder – the immediate result is not chili. It is simply the ingredients of chili: the potential for chili.

No flavors have coalesced. Nothing is working together. It doesn’t taste like chili. It doesn’t even look like chili.

Chili, after all, takes time. Stirring. Trying and adjusting. And still more time.

In the end, when the chef is pleased, the pot of chili has become more than the sum of its parts. Each of the ingredients retains its character to be sure, contributing unique layers of tasting notes. But the combination, plus time and care, has created something altogether new and different. Hearty and wonderful.

Rather like the merger of hospitals and healthcare systems.

Indeed, the initial act of merging healthcare entities is akin to that first step of placing ingredients in the pot. It’s all in there, but it’s not really something new. The various organizations are likely not operating differently yet. And, save for a few temporary banners or signs, they almost certainly don’t look like a new, unified heath system at this stage.

Merging hospitals successfully, like making chili, will take time. Some stirring, trying and adjusting to be sure. And still more time.

Even metaphorically speaking, there is one critical difference between the making of chili and the merging of hospitals: the chef doesn’t have to serve the soup until it is ready, but hospitals and healthcare entities can’t stop serving patients. Though they are facing a myriad of decisions and changes in the course of a multi-year transition, these organizations must maintain their missions and keep taking care of their communities. Thus, in effect, their consumers will be “tasting the chili” before it is ready.

For some patients, “the chili” may not taste that differently from what they’ve experienced before. They may regard this as reassuring or slightly disappointing, but it’s a fairly harmless outcome.

Of greater concern is that there may be times during the transition that “the chili” may not taste so great. There could be new paperwork, new policies, new construction and other inconveniences. Patients may be greeted by anxious staff and caregivers, who are grappling with their own changes. There could be administration foibles, such as billing troubles or scheduling problems. Though newly-merged health systems can take pains to minimize these or other challenges, they are somewhat inevitable.

So what can these newly-merged organizations do to make their transitions more palatable? Above all, they need to communicate clearly and honestly throughout the process. They must avoid overpromising – this will only disappoint patients, and could drive them to consider a competitor. They should be careful to avoid underpromising, also – there were good strategic reasons and real consumer benefits that inspired these organizations to join together. It’s about finding the right balance of what these organizations can and can’t say and maintaining communication throughout the transition.

One of our clients, St. Peter’s Health Partners, is very much in the throes of this process. Borne from a merger of three different health systems in 2011, the new organization comprises five hospitals, 165 locations and more than 12,500 employees. It is just beginning to look the part of an integrated healthcare system – but the transition is certainly not “done.”

Nearly 18 months ago, we helped develop and launch the new St. Peter’s Health Partners brand in a positive, celebratory way… incorporating dozens of actual doctors, nurses and staff in the TV, digital and print ads to simultaneously build internal and external buzz. We then helped St. Peter’s Health Partners design and implement consistent signage and “wayfinding” across its many facilities. And we’ve started to integrate the promotion of select services, such as imaging and emergency care. All the while, we’ve been careful to be honest and clear – not overpromising the immediate benefits of the merger.

Most recently, we developed a new multimedia campaign to reinforce awareness of the new organization, while touting its sheer scope and impact. The theme “Caring for more people in more places” helped to position St. Peter’s Health Partners as the healthcare leader in New York’s Capital Region and as the organization that makes top-quality, compassionate care more convenient and accessible.

Will there be bigger promises and even greater patient advantages to talk about in the months ahead? Absolutely. But all that will need time to “simmer.” In the meantime, we are helping St. Peter’s Health Partners maintain top-of-mind market awareness, keep employees (our best ambassadors and greatest asset) involved and engaged and continue educating key stakeholders…. giving them a taste, if you will, of the great things to come.

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