Hype, Spin and Health Care: the Case of an Apparently Failed Hospital Purchase by Steward Health Care

Health care is drowning in a sea of hype and spin.  We have frequently posted about deceptive marketing used to sell drugs, devices, and health care services.  We have also posted about deceptive public relations and lobbying used to sell policy positions and strategies favorable to health care organizations, and usually most favorable to their leaders.

Nevertheless, there rarely is much public skepticism about or criticism of such marketing and public relations messages when they appear.  Rather, often the media and other public voices, including those of politicians with power over the relevant public policy issues, seem to accept the messages at face value.

The Case of Steward Health Care and Landmark Medical Center

The Buy-Out Falls Apart

Therefore, it is instructive to look at examples of how such messages in retrospect appear to be fallacious, to use a polite term.  A local example that just popped into view was documented in two short news items by Felice Freyer in our own Providence Journal.  (Web access to a longer version story that appeared in the print version of the journal is here.)  The first item included,
The deal to sell Landmark Medical Center to Steward Health Care System may be falling apart. In a court filing this week, Jonathan N. Savage, the special master in charge of the hospital, made reference to the possibility that Steward would withdraw. The Boston hospital group faces a Sept. 30 deadline to complete the sale.
The Message Promoted by Steward Health Care 

We have blogged about the rapid expansion of Steward Health Care, despite the name, a for-profit company owned by private equity/ leveraged buyout firm Cerberus Capital Management. Steward has hyped its supposedly world class "new health care" model in its advertising (look here). In promoting its bid for Landmark, Steward's well-paid CEO (look here), displayed his vision for promoting the medical center through "economies of scale," "right-siting," and emphasizing ties with the community: "it's not a community hospital system. It's really a health care system," as reported by Felice Freyer in April, 2012 (Freyer F. Landmark Medical Center. A Leap into the unknown. Providence Journal, April 22, 2012.)

 In a dispute over payment rates with Rhode Island Blue Cross Blue Shield, Steward ran full-page newspaper advertisements claiming that insurance companies leaders issued an order to "terminate Landmark Medical Center," because they did not care if "residents would lose their only hospital, ... employees ... would lose their jobs, or the elderly ... would have to travel for care." (Look here.) That implied, of course, that Steward, which did not mention that it is a for-profit corporation owned by a private equity firm in the ads, cared deeply about the health care of residents of Woonsocket.

Some Skepticism, but More Acceptance

The article by Felice Freyer above did feature journalistic skepticism and include interviews with some local physicians who questioned whether Steward could possibly fulfill all its promises to simultaneously increase the quality of care and reduce costs.

However, the article showed that there was lots of positivity about Steward's track record in neighboring Massachusetts. Predictably, the President of Steward owned Quincy Medical Center boasted, "Not one person has been laid off. We have not reduced any service lines. Our focus is on enhancing." However, some people who were apparently independent of Steward also had favorable views.  A Massachusetts consumer advocate said "as far as we know, it's going fine." A Brandeis University Professor said, "it's impressive how successful they've been."

The Politicians' Buy In

Elsewhere, there were plenty of statements of support for Steward by local politicians.  The Mayor of Woonsocket supported Landmark (and implicitly Steward) it its dispute with RI BCBS, as reported by the Providence Journal, saying that the proposed buyout by Steward "is far too critical for our city, and I must take every step possible to ensure that the interests of the city and those who rely upon Landmark (Medical Center) for healthcare are being protected [by taking Steward's side in the dispute.]" Also, as reported by the Woonsocket Call, RI Congressman David Cicilline said, "I look forward to working with Landmark's new administration [that is, Steward] to ensure that it continues to deliver affordable, quality health care and well-paying jobs for hardworking Rhode Islanders." To fulfill Steward's wishes, The Rhode Island state legislature rushed to make its laws about for-profit conversion of non-profit hospitals more lenient (see the Providence Business News).

The Attorney General Later Says it was All About the "Bottom Line"

However, now Steward has apparently pulled out of the deal with nary a public mention of the reason why, much less demonstration of its concern for the poor people of Woonsocket. As reported in a second small item in the Providence Journal,
Steward Health Care System, which is apparently backing out of its deal to buy Landmark Medical Center, 'has left the hospital, its patients and its employees in a worse position,'
Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin said in a statement today. 'It has become very clear that Steward's only interest was the bottom line, not, as the Company claimed, the patients, the employees or the Woonsocket community,' Kilmartin said.

This is just one local kerfuffle about a small hospital system. However, looking at it in granular detail says a lot about how big health care organizations, like the one that here attempted to buy the local hospital system, push misleading messages to secure their private interests. These misleading messages often promote these organizations' commitments to the traditional health care mission, often in the modern argot of quality, access, and affordability), when their leaders may really care more about short term revenue. This case also shows how at least some local policy makers may be drawn in by such messages, and how the few skeptics get lost in the shuffle.

An important feature of the modern, commercialized, laissez faire health care system in the US is the role of opinion manipulation through modern, sophisticated marketing and public relations in promoting the short-term financial interests of health care organizations and their leaders at the expense of patient's and the public's health. This role seems rarely to be discussed, particularly in health care research and policy circles. It may be that some members of the public, health care professionals, and health policy makers are naturally skeptical of marketing and public relations hype, spin, and deception. However, we have seen too many examples of health care leaders promoted as "visionaries" who are anything but.

Health care professionals, patients, policy makers, and the public at large ought to be extremely skeptical of the self-serving messages packaged by marketing and public relations. Academics ought to be dissecting these messages more often. Skeptics need to make their voices heard.

Meanwhile, look out for the next "visionary," or the next "new health care" promotion. They may not turn out to be what is advertised.