If you’re in health care marketing, you know your job is challenging. When I made the shift in my advertising career from packaged goods and retail brands to health care, I realized I was no longer in the business of peddling want: I was now in the business of encouraging people to do what they needed to do. Let me explain—because I think this insight holds great opportunities for health care marketers.

When we market and advertise things like shoes, food, and gadgets, our job is to encourage prospective customers to want these things. Most people don’t “need” to buy a new car—they want to buy a new car. So if you’re an automotive marketer, your job is to encourage the prospective car buyer to want to buy your brand’s vehicle—and to spend more for the bells and whistles.

Health care is different. Our business is the business of wellness versus sickness, healing versus disease, life over death. You’d think encouraging prospective patients to care about your services and products might be easier than, say, selling makeup. But I believe our work in health care is harder. Because we’re here to help encourage people to do things they don’t want to do—but know they need to do.

I believe a marketer’s first core responsibility (and opportunity) is to help prospective patients move from the first of the six stages of their patient journey—the Trigger Event—to take action. (You can learn more about the six stages of the patient journey here.)

What are some common health care Trigger Events that initiate a patient journey?

  • A man turns 50 and realizes it’s time to schedule his first colonoscopy
  • A woman sprains her ankle and debates whether to simply ice it or visit an urgent care center
  • A man experiences strange sensations in his chest and wonders if the feelings will subside or whether he’s having a heart attack
  • A woman feels an abnormal lump in her breast and gets on the Web to diagnose herself

To my knowledge, nobody wants to spend the night in the hospital, have an MRI or wear a patient gown. Health care marketers are in the “needs business,” and at times our role is to encourage people to follow through and address their needs.

Needs like:

  • Knowing the signs of stroke and acting accordingly
  • Knowing the risk factors for disease and making lifestyle changes
  • Knowing they should consult an expert about reducing or eliminating chronic joint pain

In other words, the Trigger Event—the first step on the important patient journey—is where health care marketers can make the most impact for patients and for their organizations’ brands.

This is challenging work. People are stubborn. People would rather go about their routine days than change, even if the change could mean less pain, more vitality—even save their lives. (Case in point: a study found that about half of patients with chronic disease don’t take their medications as prescribed.)

We recently led a client immersion and discovered that their average patient waits seven years before seeking treatment. Seven years! We also know that most joint replacement patients wait months if not years before seeking treatment, even when in pain and even when that pain diminishes their quality of life.

So what are people doing after experiencing the Trigger Event and before reaching the fourth stage of the patient journey, the Decision stage? The answer isn’t “nothing.” People are researching for solutions, passively or actively. But the key insight here is that these prospective patients are not making a decision to seek care.

Therefore: as marketers, our opportunity is to shorten the Trigger to Decision timeline so that our prospective patients seek care faster.

So how do we do this?


5 ways marketers can help prospective patients move from a trigger event to seeking health care solutions

1. Help your audience envision their desired future state

A compelling future is a motivation to make a change. That’s why marketers should know, at the deepest level possible, what their prospective patients care most about, and help those audiences link engaging experiencing that desired state with the marketer’s organization.

2. Show the cost of waiting

People are also motivated by the desire to remove pain: either physical pain or eliminating stressful thoughts. Years ago I did a campaign for ex-smokers, encouraging them to get a CT scan to verify if there was any evidence of lung cancer. Early detection of lung cancer offers patients a better chance of survival. The headline was simple: “You quit smoking. Now quit worrying.” The hospital filled its appointment calendar.

3. Reduce fear and stigma

Health care is personal, sensitive, and often has fears and stigmas associated with conditions, disorders and disease states. Let people know they’re not alone, there’s nothing to be afraid or embarrassed about.

4. Give people the tools to feel empowered in their health

Because thinking about our mortality can trigger fear, many people become immobilized: they do nothing. Give your audience the tools and resources that empower them and help them feel confident in taking the next step to make the decision to seek care. These tools and resources can be in the form of relevant content on your website, seminars and screening events, and social media content and campaigns that help the prospective patient to investigate, know what questions to ask, then to seek a provider or health care solution.

5. Make it easy to seek care

Most people today believe health care is complex, arduous and disorganized, so they’d rather not initiate a conversation with a provider or schedule a doctor’s appointment. How easily can you coordinate care for your prospective patients? Do you have online appointment technology? Or a helpful call center that can advise prospective patients which physicians are currently open to new patients and accept their insurance products? Are the hours of operation for urgent care centers convenient for busy moms and dads?

Most health care marketers don’t have oversight on access. That’s why we’re fanatical about creating better models to help marketers have more impact at the operational level. Because it’s at the operational level that the best brand experiences are based.


Of the six stages of the patient journey, the first stage, The Trigger Event, is often the most overlooked stage that marketers seek to make an impact. Yet, it can be the stage with the richest opportunities: for your brand, and for the audiences your brand seeks to serve.