A mentor of mine once told me that the healthcare system is not broken. It’s actually working exactly as designed. The issue is, it’s not designed for the health of the individual. I don’t think anyone would argue that healthcare is ripe for change – change that’s ongoing and moving away from the “episodic care” to “treating the whole person.” As this transition occurs, one item that matters the most to health systems and providers is how people look for care and health information. The reality is there is no single trusted source for health information despite health systems, providers, and many others investing in health content to try and to become that trusted resource.

Imagine what it’s like for a newly diagnosed patient searching for health information. The patient just received the most emotional and painful news of her life. Her diagnosis; stage three colorectal cancer. Her world is rocked. What should she do? Does she trust the first physician? Does she get a second opinion? For most on this journey, the search engine becomes either her, or her family members’, first course of action. The search often begins with survival rates, second opinions, the best care options, clinical trials, options for care close to home, and recommendations from friends and family. Google and Facebook have not only become the tools consumers use to stalk “friends” or search for a hotel near the city they are visiting next, but they are now tools consumers use to find answers to the most emotional decision of their lives – the best place to receive care to save their life.

Over the past few years, hospital, providers and health systems have been doing their best to be the answer to the question “where to get care?” by focusing on their mobile friendly websites, differentiated content, and search engine optimization (SEO). The reality is, health systems need to do that, but the game is changing in 2016. In February, Google confirmed a major change to its search engine interface by eliminating the right hand rail ads. Paid ads are now displayed above and below the organic search results. This evolution is a dramatic change for search engine marketing (SEM), which must be fully respected.

In a nut shell, this change means that healthcare systems now need to invest in two things to be found – SEO for their beautiful new websites and SEM, so people can actually find that new website. Health systems can invest all day in SEO, but if their competitors are paying for ads, they will continue to show up first on searches, and will most likely be the first selected by those searching for care.

Hospital operators have often said that the front door to the health system is the emergency department. This is because such a high percentage of those who come through the emergency department become inpatients. Some might say there is a new front door – albeit a digital front door. The most advanced health systems, hospitals, and providers must ensure they have great curb appeal. This requires a user-friendly and mobile-friendly website with great content, an investment in SEO and SEM, and most importantly, a world-class communication machine to keep an ongoing dialogue with patients. Once patients have found and selected their provider of choice, it is incumbent upon that provider to keep the patients coming back. There are many ways to accomplish this with customer relationship management (CRM) or lead management tools, but they must have the ability to speak to these patients in the channels they prefer; email, traditional mail, Facebook or text. I’m not advocating that we send HIPAA protected information in unsecure channels; I’m simply saying there needs to be another channel to have a conversation with a past patient to keep them engaged and loyal, which is not your patient portal – that has become evident.

I can’t blame Google for making this decision. It’s how they make money. It just puts a stronger impetus for strong SEM on the providers. Innovation occurs by bringing data and science to the art of digital marketing. Any agency, and really anyone with a computer can buy AdWords ads and say they are doing SEM. The reality is that it’s a science. Health systems need to partner with companies that study how people are searching online for health information, from impressions, to clicks, to conversions, to appointments, to encounters. What is the best predictor of success? What is the least? Healthcare systems that aren’t using a data driven approach are more likely to waste their media investment in SEM strategy, and are likely filling up their marketing funnel with non-qualified leads (i.e., wasting marketing dollars)

I have been a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) for a health system, and fought the good fight of trying to convert marketing non-believers to believers. My recommendation to other CMOs is simple, keep it up. It’s the right thing to do, to organically grow your health system, service line by service line. It’s also the right thing to do for those consumers hungry for information and searching for care alternatives. Be the one that provides them with a frictionless experience from attraction, to selection, to engagement, to encounter, to discharge.