It is every mother’s worst nightmare when her child falls ill, but imagine walking into a chemist only to be greeted by endless aisles of medication and healthcare all claiming to be the quickest, strongest or most effective, attempting to make a smart purchase, all the while soothing a wailing, sick toddler.

In these trying moments, instead of relying on advice by healthcare professionals or advertising messages, researched has found that mothers prefer to seek endorsements from trusted sources, such as their friends, families, or fellow mothers. The research, which was conducted by Dr Angela Dobele at RMIT University and Professor Adam Lindgreen at Cardiff Business School found that mothers rely on other parents for information about healthcare providers, medication and to feel more confident about their choices.

Dobele, who is a senior lecturer at RMIT University’s school of economics, finance and marketing tells Marketing: “We think there are two main reasons why the mothers in our study distrusted commercial marketing messages. Firstly, a mother confronts a vast number of healthcare providers and must sort through the array of alternatives on behalf of both herself and her child. To ease this difficult decision-making process, mothers might rely on recommendations from family and friends, to make a difficult or time-consuming choice a little easier or to seek confirmation that they are making the right choice”.

“Secondly, we've seen hospital management practices aimed at incorporating quality, customer satisfaction and loyalty by involving patients centrally in value creation but there is still a very big information gap between patient and practitioner – at least for most of us.  Thus, a referral from a trusted source, such as a family member or friend for example) can cut through the professional marketing messages and provide a more believable or credible indication of quality”.

Dobele feels that mothers deem recommendations from personal sources more credible because they have actually experienced the service they are recommending, and the referral is unpaid or unrewarded.

“The mothers in our study listened to the advice of professional staff, but where a choice of service was offered or possible, they certainly asked around.  When they received excellent service, they spoke to other mothers about it.  They compare notes, stories and experiences”.

Dobele believes that this study has significant implications for healthcare marketing, suggesting that the industry needs to concentrate less on selling strategies and more on reinforcing the value of service that a patient receives.

“For many organisations, it is common practice to try to ‘add value’ to existing products by bundling offerings together,” Dobele said. “Our study shows that tactics like this are unlikely to work within the healthcare industry as mothers do not trust commercial marketing messages that try to sway their opinions.”

Instead, Dobele offers four guidelines for healthcare marketers to implement value-based strategies:

  1. Mothers do not trust marketing and advertising information and recommendations from health care service staff. So, health care marketing should be aimed at reassurance strategies or positive reinforcement of the service value – rather than a selling strategy. 
  2. Provide staff training for both medical and support staff.  This will help foster positive interactions.  Mothers are judging the bedside manners of everyone they come into contact with, from the doctor to the receptionist.  None of the mothers in our study mentioned the physical surroundings of the health care institutions they utilise.  While a minimum level of comfort and child-friendly considerations was expected, it was not a main measure of distinguishing health care organisations from competing offerings.  What was more important was manner of staff, both professional and administrative, so get on to staff training.
  3. Avoid simply adding attributes to existing products in an attempt to increase the value measure of price versus quality.  This rarely works as mothers are not going to trust it.  A health care product is likely to be a complex arrangement of attributes (for example, the medical knowledge of the health care professional and their bedside manner, prescribed medications and reception staff) and adding to these may serve to confuse or provide concern if the organisation cannot deliver to (or exceed) expectations.  Deliver on the perceived quality and deliver on a consistent communication strategy of reassurance and reinforcement – not selling.
  4. The healthcare industry needs to develop positive service experiences and form relationships with parents and children. The industry should shift away from its traditional operating practices of putting the needs of physicians and third-party payers first and instead drive their organisations to focus on appealing to increasingly assertive and knowledgeable patient customers. Clients can be demanding and are not necessarily loyal; depending on the anticipated length of the relationship with a service provider (e.g., quick emergency service versus lengthy treatment process).  The mothers in our study were willing to change health care providers to find one that suited them and their children. The more competitive the industry becomes, the more choices these 'customers' will have.