Nothing says health care like talking goats

Friday, May 18, 2012, Vol. 36, No. 20

Kriste Goad

A group of goats came on the scene last year in North Carolina, changing the way many people in that state talk about health care.

They were a cute and consumer-friendly group of goats, representing the big-bucket constituencies of attorneys, doctors, hospitals, individuals, insurers and pharmaceutical companies.

They were, figuratively, the “scapegoats for out-of-control health care costs” in the state, and they were the very creative brainchild of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) and its ad firm.

Reaction to the goat campaign ranged from outrage to sheer delight. Needless to say, tongues were wagging well beyond the borders of North Carolina as the goats struck fear (or, at least, should have) in the hearts of many a provider.

Since the launch of the scapegoats campaign, BCBSNC has conducted focus groups with thousands of people across the state to figure out the precise demographics of that state’s forthcoming health insurance exchange. They have designed a whole host of new products and offerings tailored to the “typical” North Carolinian who may enroll in such a state-sponsored exchange.

And now the insurance company is taking those product offerings to the health care providers in the state – hospitals, health care systems and physician groups – and they’re saying, “OK, here’s what we’re offering. Here’s the price. What would you like to order?” In restaurant terms, they call that kind of menu, “prix fixe.” That’s a fancy French term for a “fixed meal at a fixed price.”

Fast forward to April 2012 and an investigative news series in The Charlotte Observer and The Raleigh News & Observer on, you guessed it, “out of control” hospital profits and charges.

Put a bow on the whole package, because what has unfolded is a very well-planned campaign by the state’s largest insurance provider to dominate both the debate and the market and to come out looking like the good guys.

These same kinds of efforts are rolling out in other states. It’s still unclear who “wins” this kind of battle, but one thing is very clear: simple is always better than complex. Simple and transparent wins.

Health care is complex, no doubt. But the way people and companies talk about health care doesn’t have to be.

Let’s consider Apple and the iPhone as an example of how to get it right (mostly because I am addicted to my iPhone, and I can’t imagine my life without it). The iPhone really is smart, and it makes me look smarter on any given day because of all the things I can make it do for me.

I don’t know the first thing about all the programmer/developer/technology wizardry that is behind the iPhone curtain. I don’t need to, because someone has made it easy for me to understand and navigate. They have translated their brilliantly designed yet extremely complex system into the simplest of terms, accessible to all – even 3-year-olds.

On his deathbed, Steve Jobs was identifying ways to simplify the complexity of his own health care.

He was a master translator, which is something we desperately need.

Forget the jargon and the terminology inherent in the health care laws, policies, regulations and consultant reports. If you are a health care company, a health care provider or a health care anything and you want to be successful, focus on translating what you do and the value you deliver into simple English.

In my business, we do a lot of research to find out what people know about health care, what messages resonate with them and what makes them turn up their noses.

Inevitably, what we find is that the way the health care industry talks about health care usually isn’t the way most people talk about health care.

As a result of all kinds of things, namely health care reform mandates, it appears the insurance companies are slightly ahead of the curve in the consumer-focused department.

There are plenty of examples of health service providers doing a good job of it, too. Locally, one of the best is Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which has somehow managed to simplify and personalize the genotyping of cancer tumors. It’s called “My Cancer Genome.” Simpler still, every patient can access his or her medical records, test results and message their providers via the “My Health at Vanderbilt” portal.

Good designers and politicians alike have learned to follow the KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid). When it comes to health care, the future belongs to those who can communicate the complex universe simply. That goes for communicating with all audiences, whether internal or external.

Talk straight, and you won’t even need to get the goats involved.

Kriste Goad is senior vice president at ReviveHealth, a Top 15 national health care public relations firm with offices in Nashville and Santa Barbara, Calif.