Allegheny Health Network makes inroads on its brand

Name recognition is at 41 percent, officials say


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A month after the freshly cobbled Allegheny Health Network had unveiled its new logo and advertising campaign in a media event last July, the system's brand recognition was at 11 percent.

Today -- after a year of countless television ads, radio spots, print spreads, community events and tons of earned media -- brand recognition for AHN is hovering around 41 percent, with spikes as high as 49 percent, depending on the survey.

"Frankly, after one year, [that] is pretty good," said Steven Nelson, senior vice president of health services strategy, product and marketing for Highmark Health, which owns Allegheny Health Network.

While the seven-hospital network retained a piece of its name from the "old" West Penn Allegheny Health System, there were no guarantees that the new system would catch on. Hospitals are notoriously difficult to rebrand -- long patient memories and long hospital histories often mean the seniors who use the systems most will often refer to the hospitals by their decades-old names. Names drafted from whole cloth have no institutional equity. Younger adults go years without visiting a hospital or a doctor.

As a result, new health brands can take five years or longer to sink in, experts say.

But Allegheny Health Network is ahead of the curve, said Rob Rosenberg, president of Chicago-area Springboard Branding, a hospital marketing firm.

"That's probably better than they would have anticipated," Mr. Rosenberg said. "A lot of that could be attributed to the fact that 'Allegheny' was already a hospital name. [Allegheny Health Network] wasn't a totally new name."

That word, AHN said at the time, carried its own brand value, and still does. Highmark's own polling also shows that Allegheny General Hospital, the system's flagship, is the region's best-recognized hospital, ahead of even Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC by a few percentage points.

Systemwide, "there's still a lot a room for them to grow," Mr. Rosenberg said. "I'm sure their end goal is in the 75 percent range." A top-tier health network, such as the Mayo Clinic, has "aided" brand recognition of about 75 percent internationally, and near universal recognition on their home turf. ("Aided" recognition means the pollster asks respondents if they have ever heard of a particular name or product; "unaided" means the product comes to mind without being named.)

Mr. Nelson said he expects AHN's aided brand recognition to climb by 10 percentage points a year over the next few years, which would eventually put AHN in that mid-70s range, at least in Southwestern Pennsylvania. New ad campaigns are being unveiled this weekend, and AHN plans to ramp up its social media engagement this year, too.

Step one is getting people to recognize the new name, Mr. Nelson said. Step two is imbuing that name-recognition with a reputation for quality clinical care. Some of that can be achieved by advertising around specific services -- oncology, orthopedic surgery and sports medicine, and women'‍s services.

But most of that must be achieved through the delivery of that care. For now, AHN's quality perception scores are still behind rival UPMC's, by "single digits," Mr. Nelson said. Building up those scores will hinge on improving patient experience and clinical outcomes.

Those responsibilities fall on John Paul, head of the Allegheny Health Network, and the network's clinical leadership. In an interview last month, Mr. Paul highlighted a number of service-line expansions and construction projects that are underway -- lab and diagnostic investments in each of the system's hospitals, renovation of obstetrics facilities at West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield and expanded outpatient centers in Monroeville and Peters.

This summer and later this year, AHN will also bring online its new fully leased North Hills medical mall (branded as a "Health + Wellness Pavilion"), a new cancer center at Jefferson Hospital, a new postpartum unit at West Penn and new women's health and obstetrics programs at Jefferson.

In particular, the new OBGYN project in Jefferson, Mr. Paul said, shows Highmark's and AHN's dedication to keeping care close to home, and out of the urban core. AHN looked at "the out-migration from those regions, [and] it was clear that there were enough births, enough women leaving the Jefferson geography coming into the city, that it warranted actually having that service there," he said.

To fill those expanded obstetrics units and women's health programs -- and to fill the gap in Highmark'‍s provider network once Magee-Womens Hospital is considered out-of-network, on Jan. 1 -- AHN has added several OBGYN practices in the last 18 months. AHN and Highmark are also helping to recruit physicians to other suburban hospitals, including the Heritage Valley Health System, the Washington Hospital, Weirton Medical Center, and others.

"Whether we own them or not, [we] help them recruit to put specialists in those communities," Mr. Paul said.

And in areas where there are service vacuums, AHN and Highmark will consider de novo development. "We continue to look in the east and the west, particularly in the west," he said. "We're looking at properties there, [and] we've had discussions with a couple other providers" about joint ventures.

Improving financial performance will help, too. The odor of previous bankruptcies doesn't easily wash off.

"We've made tremendous progress," said Elizabeth Allen, AHN's chief financial officer. We "still have room to go, [as] we continue to restructure ourselves to be the health care provider of the future, instead of the past."

The five hospitals of the West Penn Allegheny Health System, which make up the core of AHN, are still posting quarterly operating losses, but the numbers are improving, as are patient revenue numbers. The AHN system as a whole reported a $107 million loss in 2013.

Allegheny Health Network is made up of the five hospitals of the former West Penn Allegheny Health System, plus Jefferson Regional in the South Hills and Saint Vincent Hospital in Erie. The system has about 1,000 employed physicians.

Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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