Recently, Lynn Neary on NPR’s Morning Edition interviewed James Uland, editor of the Journal of Healthcare Finance (thanks to Dan Dunlop for the tip) about hospital advertising. In Uland’s opinion, hospitals shouldn’t be spending money on mass media advertising. “I mean, there are some things that hospitals need to get the word out on, but they can do that through public service announcements. For example, if they’re giving swine flu vaccines, certain types of screenings. The media is almost always receptive to doing news reports or doing PSAs,” Uland said.

He said a lot of other things, too–that hospitals should market to referring physicians, and that healthcare marketers have other, more cost-effective ways to reach their audiences these days. And–he’s not completely wrong.

According to Uland, “more than 90 percent of patients encounter a hospital by referral from a doctor.” If that’s true, then hospitals should almost certainly expend more time and resources talking with referring physicians. No argument here.

I’d also agree that hospitals have new ways to reach patients that cost far less than expensive radio and television and outdoor advertising. If you’re not working hard to inform and motivate patients through social media and web initiatives, you’re missing a huge opportunity.

But Uland’s comments betray a simplistic and incomplete understanding of marketing in general–and healthcare marketing in particular. Yes, there is audience waste in television advertising; yet, even with the waste, the cost per impression for television advertising is a small fraction of the cost per impression of direct mail, which Uland apparently endorses. It’s actually quite a bit less expensive than other media to reach a big audience with television.

I also take umbrage with the idea put forth by Uland that healthcare marketers were somehow seduced into advertising. “It became more common, really, in the ’80s, when hospitals executives started being wooed by ad agencies and when they started to succumb to, frankly, the sex appeal of TV ads,” Uland said.

That’s just insulting. Apparently, the evil marketing people lured the noble doctors into the dark world of advertising. I’d have thought doctors were smarter than that.

The fact is, health care is a competitive business. Just because some doctors and healthcare finance types find advertising unseemly does not make it so.

And the idea that PSAs and press releases can take care of hospital messaging in lieu of mass media advertising is almost too naive to dignify with a response. Suffice to say that you’re not going to reach your audience at the times most TV stations air PSAs: 2 a.m. and Sunday morning.

In truth, television will continue to be the best–and least expensive–way to reach the biggest audience with a powerful message. The tools available to marketers on the web provide ways to extend that message and empower patients in ways never before available. Marketing to referring physicians? You bet.

A good healthcare marketing program uses all the tools at its disposal, in the proper proportion, to achieve the desired result. Hospital advertising is neither immoral nor “too expensive.” If you’re helping people make smart healthcare decisions, advertising is all to the good. If your advertising is also helping to drive downstream revenue, all to the better.

Hospitals shouldn’t stop advertising. They should do better, smarter, bolder advertising.