Finding Purple Cow: Healthcare Marketing Now and Then


Navigating through the healthcare maze to find fitting providers is a daunting task even for doctors themselves. For personal healthcare, I admit having used Yelp, ZocDoc, Healthgrades, Medscape, and even Google to figure out who is the best provider for the problem at hand. Sometimes, I can ask a few trusted colleagues for referrals. However, most of the time I feel the process can be like rolling a dice.  An excellent recent article onthis issue on Wall Street Journal presents a well-rounded discussion, demonstrating the complexity of developing fair and useful quality metrics for healthcare.

I will leave that subject to the experts.

If the quality spectrum is a bell curve, preferably with its peak skewed towards the better end, most of the metrics developed are trying to figure out the tail end of the curve, which perhaps represents the worst 10-20% providers, hopefully less. However, the remaining bulk (80-90%) of providers are rather undifferentiated. The best and the brightest in the field are treated equally by payers. Patients also often take on significant financial risks when choosing their providers. Some may argue that the odds are worse than blind dates.

Here is where marketing in healthcare becomes important. Marketing is not just about increasing sales in products and services. Marketing is an important channel to inform the consumers so that they can make a wise purchase decision.

But the word “marketing” often leaves us such bad taste. In Seth Godin’s landmark book “Purple Cow”, he points out that traditional advertising is loosing its power because it is so abundant (not to mention expensive). He suggests that the best way to market oneself is to make the products and services themselves “remarkable” — to be the purple cow.

So how can providers with excellent skills and personalities present themselves as the purple cow?

In the old days, there were three ways extrordinary providers stood out in medicine:

1. Word of mouth.

2. Academic achievements. This could be academic resume, inventions, famous paper published, department titles, and etc.

3. Experiences. This could be number of cases performed or combined perceived outcomes of these cases after a long duration of time.  That said, it often took providers years to develop relationships and accumulate experiences. That is why there is a stereotypical image of what a doctor should look like — an older man.

So what has changed in this digital age? Perhaps with the aid of technologies, less experienced providers can achieve higher accuracy, but the advantage of having successfully treated larger number of patients is irreplaceable.  Nonetheless, what has significantly improved is the efficiency in relationship building among providers, and between providers and patients. In the past, relationship building depends on personal interactions and knowledge exchange (with the patients or other providers as the audience). A typical relationship-building scenario that still occurs today is an in-depth phone call or visit that deepens trust and comfort.

Furthermore, a number of new digital channels are now available to “scale” these interactions to show the consumers or referral base that the providers are not only knowledgeable, bright, and humane, but also thought leaders whom they can trust:

1. Online CME courses: These courses used to be only taught by a few recognized field experts offered by a few professional organizations such as RSNA. However, more online CME teaching opportunities are becoming available as more medical groups and organizations are providing these as a part of content marketing effort. One example can be seen with vRad .

2. Digital publishing: These can range from email newsletters and kindle book publishing (, to personal or professional blogs. What used to be a time consuming and expensive process can now be done within days and nearly free. The audience is also not restricted by geography.

3 Social media: There have been quite a number of articles on using social media tools in medicine. It is a proven tool for effective community building, message amplification, rapid dissemination, and engagement.  Some call it a “social revolution”, as it has ultimately changed the way people interact with one another. This includes interactions among providers and between providers and patients.  In addition to well known established social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin, a number of medicine specific social platforms are also now available, including

4. Among the newly digital social platforms such as (for patients focused) and (for clinicians), there is a trend towards more focus on digital social platforms with educational purpose. As in real life, the most valuable and professional confidence building interaction is when knowledge is exchanged.  If you ask me who the best radiologists are within specific subspecialty fields, I can give you a long list of names without a blink of eye. That’s because I have personally experienced the power of knowledge under these great individuals’ guidance when I was in training as a resident or fellow.  Of course, many of these people are also well published in the academic world. With the newer social platforms, you do not have to publish the latest paper on functional MRI to teach me a tip or two on medical imaging. Everyone can teach someone else a tip or two, and through this Socratic process relationships are consolidated. That’s the beauty of educational social platforms.

I am by no means a marketing professional. However, in this digital age, what works and what does not work is almost instantaneously obvious. Being the “purple cow” or providing remarkable and excellent healthcare still requires hard work, talent, and consistency, but if you are the purple cow, I hope it is much easier to find you now as compared to before.


Neuroradiologist by trade, enthusiast for big data, digital marketing, 3D printing in healthcare

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