As More Minorities Get Health Care, Marketers Face New Challenges

With New Legislation, Those Once Excluded Will Need to Be Taken as Serious Consumers

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The Affordable Care Act of 2010 is expected to increase the number of insured in the United States by at least 32 million in 2019, about half of them non-white. This will demand of marketers across the spectrum a heightened focus on multicultural patients as consumers. Is the advertising industry ready for this?

Serving diverse populations has never been a strong suit of the health-care system in general; there are huge disparities in the quality of care between whites and African Americans and Hispanics. The law calls for expanded initiatives to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the health-care profession, as well as improved cultural competency. But this will take time. Meanwhile, the existing force of health-care providers will have to adopt a more multicultural mindset -- and that includes increased multicultural intelligence in marketing communications.

Insurance companies will face a different set of challenges. The law stipulates that by 2014 states must set up exchanges through which consumers can directly purchase health insurance, and all legal residents will be required to obtain insurance or pay a penalty. That will likely force a change in the traditional model of marketing health insurance from B2B to a more consumer-oriented approach.

Several major insurers already are adding retail locations and kiosks in shopping malls, as well as sponsoring health fairs, The Miami Herald reports. Humana, for example, is offering its members a 5% savings at Walmart stores on purchases of fresh fruits, vegetables and other products that carry the retailer's "Great For You" label. Though many of the newly insured will be eligible for subsidized health insurance through Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, to be successful, insurance companies, like providers, will need to be ready to address the unique needs of a very different demographic than what they are used to.

Then there are the pharmaceutical companies. According to Gregg DiPietro, in a blog for Pharm Exec, before the new health-care law, "pharma built its positioning platform almost entirely on two dimensions: efficacy and safety." He adds, "With the approval of the health care law, the conversation has moved ... to one of overall 'value.' ... Efficacy and safety ... are not enough to carry a product's positioning platform."

Dorothy Wetzel, former VP-consumer marketing at Pfizer, offers five questions in a recent blog that any pharmaceutical brand needs to ask itself when considering beefing up its efforts to multicultural consumers:

  • What is the size of the business opportunity?

  • Do multicultural patients approach health issues differently than the general-market patients in their disease state?

  • Do the current messages in your communications resonate with the multicultural patient?

  • Does your current media and tactical plan reach the multicultural patient?

  • Are there organizations that could help accelerate access and the impact of your efforts?

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that every multicultural population has its unique issues. For instance, African Americans experience higher rates of mortality from heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disease and HIV/AIDS than any other U.S. racial or ethnic group. Hispanics are almost twice as likely as whites to die from diabetes, and some Asian-American populations have rates of stomach, liver and cervical cancers that are much above the national average.

"You can't standardize diversity and say that all of our diverse populations need this," says Russell Bennet, Vice President of Latino Health Solutions at United Healthcare. "Each population may need different things."

If we are to count ourselves among the great nations of the world, then Americans have a moral imperative to increase the quality of health care for all. As multicultural marketers, we can help. There is a need to educate about disparities. There is a need to get the word out to medically underserved folks as to how they can take best advantage of the new health-care options. And there is clearly a need for more research that looks into the impact of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation on how one navigates -- and is navigated -- through the health-care system.

Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by advertisers will be to make Americans -- in and out of the health-care profession -- aware that we do indeed have a disparities problem. A study conducted last year found that only 59% of Americans were aware of racial and ethnic disparities in health care. Before the ad industry takes on this issue -- and it's a tough one, given the current political climate -- its first job will be to educate health-care providers as well as the general public. Once that 's accomplished, the industry can tackle the challenge of how best to reach multicultural patients as important consumers.

David Morse is president-CEO of New American Dimensions and the author of Multicultural Intelligence: Eight Make-or-Break Rules for Marketing to Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation.
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