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Jim Kenyon: No telling where Dartmouth-Hitchcock ‘brand journey’ ends

  • Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., on March 6, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Will Parson

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 4/11/2022 8:51:04 PM
Modified: 4/11/2022 8:49:54 PM

Only a few hours to liftoff! Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health — or at least that is what the mega health care system has called itself for more than a decade — will be “launching a new brand” come Tuesday.

“The brand launch is the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in D-HH’s history,” CEO Joanne Conroy gushed in a recent email to the organization’s 13,500 employees and army of volunteers.

Without giving away the big reveal, Conroy played up the “brand launch celebration” as an event “you won’t want to miss.”

Oh please, tell me more.

Sorry, mum’s the word, D-HH spokeswoman Audra Burns told me via email last Wednesday.

“We’ll talk publicly about our brand journey when we announce the new brand, next week,” she wrote.

I get why D-HH is tight-lipped. It’s only natural the big bosses who occupy the executive suites in Lebanon are feeling a bit anxious. Rebranding can be a gambit. (If you run into any D-HH execs over 50, now is probably not the time to bring up New Coke.)

D-HH has already spent a lot of time — and money, no doubt — on the rebranding effort, which included more than 50 focus group interviews with a wide range of stakeholders.

More big bucks are sure to follow as D-HH rolls out what Conroy is calling the “verbal and graphic representation of who we are, and what we stand for.”

The new “brand identity” is central to D-HH’s effort to expand its empire into southern New Hampshire. That means going head-to-head with Boston’s world-renowned medical centers for patients — and insurance dollars — in the Granite State’s most densely populated areas.

The new brand, Conroy wrote, will “strengthen our position in southern New Hampshire and assure our patients and communities that the highest levels of care can be found right here at home ... no need to travel (to) Boston or New York.”

Is Conroy, a medical doctor who trained as an anesthesiologist, dreaming?

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the system’s mother ship in Lebanon, and its affiliates offer fine care. But in many specialties, they’re not in the same league as NewYork-Presbyterian and Massachusetts General — both listed among the nation’s Top 10 hospitals in U.S. News and World Report’s 2021-2022 rankings.

Don’t get me wrong. The Upper Valley is fortunate to have DHMC. Not many rural parts of the country have an academic medical center in their backyard that also serves as an economic engine.

But competing with Boston and New York medical centers? This seems like a lot to expect from fresh signage and some banal advertising copy.

It sounds risky, maybe even foolhardy.

I guess D-HH figures there’s not much left to conquer in the Upper Valley and surrounding area. It already controls four of the region’s community hospitals — Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon, Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor, New London Hospital and Cheshire Medical Center in Keene.

DHMC, licensed for 396 beds, is in the midst of a $150 million expansion. The five-story patient pavilion will add 64 single-occupancy rooms with space for more, further cementing DHMC’s position as the Upper Valley’s go-to place for specialty care.

But bricks and mortar apparently only go so far. Rebranding, on the other hand, will “elevate D-HH’s reputation nationally, which will attract high-caliber employees and research dollars,” Conroy wrote in the email to the hospital’s employees.

To be fair, I shouldn’t give Conroy all the credit for penning the rally-the-troops missive. Jennifer Gilkie, D-HH’s vice president of communications and marketing, is listed as the email’s co-sender.

According to the email, D-HH’s “brand journey” began three years ago when its communications and marketing team embarked on a system-wide effort to “better understand Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health’s place in the regional and national healthcare landscape.”

“And while D-HH has grown significantly over the past decade in clinical programs and our numbers of patients and employees, our branding has not kept pace.”

So it remains to be seen how comprehensive this makeover will be.

For instance, is D-HH about to unhitch itself from its roots?

If Conroy and company really intend to shake things up, they could shorten the organization’s name to Dartmouth Health. Riding Dartmouth’s Ivy League coattails even more than D-HH already does isn’t a bad strategy.

And no disrespect to Mary, but when most people outside the Upper Valley hear Hitchcock, they assume Alfred.

That said, dropping the Hitchcock moniker could be a bit too radical. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if D-HH tweaks the names of its smaller affiliate hospitals.

Alice Peck Day recently sent out a letter to more than 500 donors that struck me as an attempt to brace check-writers for what the future holds.

“While gifts to APD will continue to remain at APD even as the brand changes, it will be hard for some to recognize if APD is still APD,” wrote Sue Mooney, the hospital’s CEO.

In trying to discern the final destination of D-HH’s “brand journey,” I suppose it’s possible I’ve taken a wrong turn. Perhaps there aren’t any name changes on the horizon. It could just be limited to marketing hocus-pocus: A new logo to slap on D-HH websites and print publications; a fresh tagline in advertising campaigns; a few billboards on Interstate 93 to hype D-HH services to the coveted southern New Hampshire crowd.

Whatever the new brand entails, D-HH’s marketing gurus are counting on the public to drink their branding Kool-Aid.

It’ll be interesting to watch how big a splash the new brand makes outside the Upper Valley bubble. (Recall that for the past two years, D-HH has been in the process of asking the state and feds for permission to combine forces with Catholic Medical Center and its two affiliate hospitals, which are known as GraniteOne Health and have about 400 beds.)

Last week, I talked with John Wasson, emeritus professor at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. He was also a founding member of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, the college’s health services research center. For nearly 35 years, the institute has looked at the U.S. health care system with a critical eye.

What does Wasson make of the rebranding effort? “Dartmouth-Hitchcock is no different than any other health care corporation,” he told me. “It’s just acting like health care corporations do.”

Before talking with Wasson, I read an article that he’d written for the Journal of Ambulatory Care Management, a national peer-reviewed publication, in 2019.

“U.S. health care conglomerates spend several billion dollars annually on public relations campaigns,” Wasson wrote. “Adding insult to injury, this extravagant puffery is often disguised by accountants as a community benefit so that health conglomerates can maintain their pretense toward nonprofit status.”

In his article, Wasson suggested medical centers “redirect public relations budgets into the education of medical students to reduce or eliminate the debt burden that pushes these students toward lucrative specialties and questionable billing practices. The amount wasted annually on public relation campaigns could more than offset the tuition of all medical students.”

I also reached out to Alan Sager, a professor and director of the health care reform program at Boston University School of Public Health. When I was a health care reporter in Florida during the 1990s, I relied on Sager to cut through marketing mumbo jumbo the state’s major hospitals used in their never-ending quest to attract more patients.

Sound familiar?

Sager reminded me that D-HH is only one of many health organizations to go the rebranding route.

When Boston hospital heavyweights Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s merged more than 25 years ago, they called themselves Partners HealthCare.

In 2020, they rebranded into Mass General Brigham. Citing health care and marketing experts, Boston Business Journal reported the rebranding could cost as much as $100 million.

“In the health world, we call that light-hearted expenditure ‘solid waste’ because it did nothing to improve the health of even one single human,” Sager told me.

I showed Sager the email that D-HH sent out to employees and volunteers. The script is all-too-familiar, he said.

Although D-HH enjoys a “geographical monopoly,” it continues to “jockey for position,” like other regional health providers, Sager said. “They’ve been persuaded that their brand matters in winning market shares and generally in competing successfully.”

It’s hardly a secret the U.S. spends more on health care than any other country (an estimated $4.5 trillion this year), but has poorer health outcomes than other high-income nations. No “brand journey” will improve the situation.

It raises questions about what D-HH is “trying to accomplish and how is it good for the citizens of New Hampshire and Vermont,” Sager said.

“When systems like D-HH compete, they are pursuing something for themselves — growth in volume, more privately-insured patients, a blacker bottom line,” he said.

Tuesday’s brand launch is scheduled for noon. Executives from across the D-HH system will join Conroy on the video announcement.

Later in the day, Conroy will field questions from the media. I hope she’s willing to share some figures, starting with the amount that’s gone into the effort so far, and the costs moving forward.

“If they don’t tell us how much they’re spending on rebranding,” Sager said, “it means they’re ashamed.”

Something for D-HH to consider before it starts pouring the Kool-Aid.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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