Until recently, the economic machinery of the health care industry ran like no other. Health care did not respond to the traditional laws of supply and demand. It was impervious to external pressure to improve quality or offer better service. It was never in any hurry to operate more efficiently. It didn’t have to tell anyone what it charged for products or services or how well those products or services performed. For most buyers (patients), a disinterested third party (insurers) paid the sellers (hospitals and doctors) for whatever the buyers needed or wanted.
Well, those times are over. Now, the pressure is on each segment of the health care industry to operate like other businesses by providing transparent value to discerning purchasers. To make that adjustment, they’re applying business strategies to their own operations that are common in other industries but until now foreign to health care.
That shift has given birth to a potent albeit easy-to-follow structure for a column or blog post from a health care executive or pundit. The point of the commentary is to convince readers that his or her organization is or should be working hard to become more like successful companies in other industries.
I call the structure: What [blank] can learn from [blank]. Or, in its long form: What [blank] can learn from [blank] about [blank]. Or, its snarky long-form cousin: Why can’t [blank] be more like [blank] when it comes to [blank].
In the first [blank], the author plugs in the word “health care” or the particular branch of the health care system that the author wants to trim; let’s say “hospitals.” In the second [blank] goes the name of the non-health care company the author admires or believes should be emulated; let’s say “Chick-fil-A.” If using the long form, the author drops the trait to be admired or emulated into the third [blank], say “getting your order right.” So the subject of the column or blog post becomes: What [hospitals] can learn from [Chick-fil-A] about [getting your order right].
The structure works.
First, it’s not complicated. The audience knows immediately what point the author is trying to make.
Second, it plucks at a familiar emotional string. Who among us hasn’t been told to be more like a favored sibling, co-worker, neighbor, relative, historic figure or celebrity?
Third, it pulls in an instantly identifiable element from everyday life whether it’s a restaurant or a retailer or non-health care profession.
And fourth, it’s flexible, allowing the author to drop in a current event in the second [blank] to make it topical, to demonstrate that he or she is aware of what’s going on in the real world and to make it more likely to be shared as part of the current news cycle.
Here’s a headline from Becker’s Hospital Review, one of the industry’s leading health care publications: “4 Things Hospital CEOs Can Learn from General Motors.” You know immediately what it’s about as GM’s ignition switch safety scandal was all over the news at that time. Or, you can read the snarky variation on that theme in Esquire’s "Why the GM Case is Like Health Care."
Probably the most famous use of this approach was by noted physician, writer and health services researcher Atul Gawande, M.D., in a piece he published in The New Yorker in 2012. Although the formal name of the article is "Big Med," most people refer to it as "What health care can learn from the Cheesecake Factory."
Hell, I even used it for a post I wrote under my own name for one of our client’s blogs: "Checking under the hood: Why visiting your doctor needs to be more like taking your car to Jiffy Lube." It was a big hit for the blog and with the client.
If you decide to go this route, you need to be careful about what you put in that second (blank). The reference must be unique, clever or different to tell your audience that you’re making a point that hasn’t been made before and that it’s worth their time reading what you wrote. The default settings for the second blank have become: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix and, most recently, Uber. Stay away from those overused analogies lest your audience gloss over your piece because of a perceived lack of creativity.
I would recommend starting your piece with something you really like or have personally experienced. For instance, Gawande’s piece leads with him taking his children and some of their friends to his local Cheesecake Factory for dinner. I’m no Gawande, but my Jiffy Lube piece came to me when I was getting my car serviced. Being personal makes it genuine. That will come through in the narrative as you describe in honest detail why you like what you like.
The next time you’re in a retail setting, at a concert or at a ballgame and are truly appreciating the quality of the product or service or performance you’re experiencing, think of how you might spin that into a column or blog post that reflects the best that your health care organization has to offer its customers.
Some other recent pieces that have used the same construction include:
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