I had an eye-opening experience recently while working with colleagues on a project for a well-respected Fortune 500 company. Our firm was engaged to create a space—physical and cultural—for innovation.

This space would enlist the help of current employees, outside experts and customers to contribute to an effort that would improve current products as well as envision new ones. The effort would be driven by a strategy similar to the quick-to-market “agile” methodology that we normally think of as a hallmark of companies in Silicon Valley.

To my surprise, this space was not to be located within research or product design but in marketing. It was up to the marketing leaders to set the direction for the future, leveraging their skills and deep understanding of consumers. For me, a physician working in the healthcare industry, where marketing is usually the last place one would look for innovation, this was news.

As I wrapped my mind around this, I reflected on my experiences working with large healthcare institutions, helping them to rethink what they do and plan for a better future. I asked my chief marketing officer colleagues to weigh in on their experiences around change, innovation and new product development and how it might relate to the challenges of the chief medical officers.

Here are four ways to use marketing wisdom to guide innovation in the healthcare space.

Listen to patients in the same way that brands listen to consumers.

As the health industry moves from a B2B to a B2C model, healthcare providers are by necessity becoming more customer-centric. The customer experience has become so important to hospitals that many, including the Cleveland Clinic and Johns Hopkins Medicine, have hired chief experience officers to oversee their efforts. This isn’t just a matter of responding to complaints, although that is certainly important.

This is about listening for the literal and figurative pain points: What frustrates patients? What gets in the way of seeing their doctors? What are the workarounds?

It’s about homing in on what customers are drawn to and studying what encourages them to be healthy. But mostly, it’s about innovating in much the same the way that companies like Apple do: by improving the experience of healthcare in ways that patients can’t even imagine yet.

Create a culture that encourages innovation.

Culture does eat strategy. It’s ironic that some of the greatest research centers responsible for truly game-changing medical breakthroughs don’t actually support experimentation outside the laboratory. Creating safe spaces for innovation throughout an organization and a mind-set of permission encourages an entrepreneurial approach to improvement and problem solving. Organizations shouldn’t focus on multiyear million-dollar projects alone. 


It’s time to start borrowing from software developers by using a rapid-cycle process modeled on agile product development: move quickly, experiment, fail, try again and always keep the customer top of mind.

Develop innovative products and services.

Keeping an eye on millennials—and on the trends at CES and SXSW Interactive—isn’t just a necessity for tech companies. Healthcare organizations also need to track the digital tools and trends impacting their world. Tap your best and brightest—and if necessary, bring in outside experts—and think mobile. We are living in an increasingly handheld world, yet our industry often fails to engage via mobile. Only 33% of pharma sites are mobile-optimized. That’s a big business gap, especially when you consider that 44% of patients who find hospitals via their mobile devices will schedule appointments.

The array of apps for personalizing both healthcare and the management of health data grows daily. No one knows your community better than you do, so use technology to create a user experience that is right for your clients and make sure it is reliable.

Stay one step ahead of your competition.

Marketers know that strategic partnerships are great ways to leverage brands. Consider the news that the Cleveland Clinic has formed an alliance with Theranos—the Silicon Valley darling that offers a full spectrum of lab tests with only a few drops of blood. The Cleveland Clinic will therefore be able to market a new process that will relieve some anxiety of a long blood collection process while also lowering costs. Saving customers money and anxiety while also responding to their medical needs is the epitome of viewing the patient experience through the customer-service lens.

Every chief medical officer has the responsibility of ensuring quality care for all patients in his or her hospital, clinic or health system while simultaneously keeping the organization competitive in the face of the disruptive models of care that are beginning to shake up the traditional industry. By thinking like marketers, they can embrace innovation and differentiate their organizations by providing better experiences, better products and ultimately better health.

Dr. Judith Simmons is vice president of healthcare strategy of DDG.