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Rural Hospital Communications: 3 Data-Driven Lessons

It’s the economy, stupid. Campaign strategist James Carville coined that dictum in the 1992 presidential campaign, helping Bill Clinton upset George Bush amidst a deep recession. Three decades later, the phrase still holds true for understanding public attitudes toward hospitals and health systems.


Based on a survey of 1,000 consumers nationwide, our friends at Jarrard have released an important new study on public perceptions of finances and healthcare. Jarrad partner Isaac Squyres, an RHI contributor, gave us a look at the rural data and offered his analysis.


“The study indicates money is the lens through which people are evaluating the world,” he told us. “You see that playing out more acutely in rural areas because of the economic struggles people face.”


For instance, on questions of trust, equity, mission, and community partnership, rural residents appear highly skeptical of their local hospital – even more so than the overall population.


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Though not fully explored by the data, Isaac believes poverty, rather than geography, is driving such skepticism. In the Jarrard numbers, rural residents were much more likely to identify as poor or working class than the survey average and far less likely to describe their personal financial situation as excellent or good.


“The general takeaway from the data is that those who identify as poor or working class are quite a bit more skeptical than the general public about hospitals and healthcare on most mission-related questions,” Isaac says. “Or put another way, skepticism is inversely proportional to economic circumstances.”


What can healthcare leaders do to build trust with rural residents despite the many economic challenges? Isaac offers three suggestions for communications and community relations based on the survey data.


First, make sure your people are on board. In rural communities, everyone tends to know their doctors, nurses, and hospital leaders personally ­– and that’s a relationship advantage that hospitals don’t have in more populous areas.


“Whatever communications campaign you’re thinking about, it starts inside,” Isaac says. “Make sure your people – your employees, your nurses, and your physicians – know how to talk about mission. Make sure they truly understand what you’re doing to positively impact the community. That’s something we do constantly – help people talk about their value in a meaningful way.”


Secondly, make a plan. Even without a formal communications department, rural healthcare leaders should “take a breath” and formulate a plan for communicating with neighbors and stakeholders.


“Think about what you can afford, where you can move the needle based on the power of personal relationships.” If you can’t draft a communications plan internally, consider bringing in an outside partner. That may involve an up-front expense, but when it comes time to execute your plan in a rural community, “It takes less money to move the needle on public opinion than it would in an urban or suburban area.”


Finally, just make an effort. Rural hospitals are perpetually understaffed, and many leaders rank communications as a very low priority. That’s a mistake, Isaac believes, because rural leaders may be in the enviable position of offering education rather than re-education.


On questions such as hospital finances (“Would you say that hospitals are experiencing rather good times or rather bad times financially?”), rural residents were more likely to select “Don’t know/No opinion” compared to survey respondents overall. That suggests rural healthcare leaders may find more people in their communities are open to persuasion, compared to suburbs and cities where opinions are more hardened.


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To learn more about Jarrard’s 2023 National Consumer Survey and request a free download of the 48-page report, please click here.

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