Healthcare Options and Identity

We all know the perils in marketing healthcare. While there is a mythology created about the world’s best clinics, the fears people harbor about healthcare tend to drive the conversation – the wait at the office, the horror stories of infection, etc. Healthcare has responded over the years by giving a list of positive attributes about their offerings. Though a necessary element to be sure, this “promise of good” also serves to create a barrier between the people in the institution and the people using it. People are reminded that they are “foreigners” in another land, because we spend such little time thinking about the nature of identity and how it can be used to enhance an experience.

The ways that health is invoked in the formation of identity and subjectivity is central to understanding how people internalize your brand. This is because identity as it is constructed in relation to the choice of a doctor (or hospital, a pharmacy, etc.) touches on fundamental issues in social science; namely the workings of power in relation to social differentiation and senses of self and other. Heavy stuff, but the point is simple – healthcare isn’t about a commodity, it is about the people who use it and how they construct their notions of “self.”

It is the verb to identify and not the noun “identity” that opens the richest analytical perspectives. The verb makes identity a process that happens between people, not individuals and the institution. Social identity is a game of playing roles. Offering a list of services means little in this sense because the decisions about where to go and how to select a provider are bound up in interactions, metaphor and story telling. The lists healthcare providers supply differ little from one another and serve only to enhance the already enormous sense of distance between the healthcare worker and the person seeking attention. Identities work and are worked.

There is often an overlap between the people seeking treatment from the people in the medical facility, for people sharing a common problem. Between the two poles of identity politics, the collective social roles of doctor/patient and the personal, different balances are made between common diagnosis and treatment efforts and individual endeavors to rework a devalued identity.  In other words, the lines between healthcare worker (be it doctor, nurse or physical therapist) are increasingly challenged in an age where identity can be so readily reconstructed according to setting.

Whereas an older generation of social scientists was concerned with the relation between health and bioidentities like race, gender and age, we must now examine the ways that diagnostic technology actually creates social difference and social groupings. Maybe this is beginning to happen even in developing countries: In Uganda, people who have been screened for HIV are encouraged to join post-test clubs. Therapeutic technology can also form the basis for bio-sociality as in the case of support groups for people who have had mastectomies, colostomies, and transplants, or who are on lifelong antiretroviral therapy.

By describing patterns of social interaction morality, and meaning, they suggest the processes through which assumptions and consciousness about health assume significance. They are richly textured because the researchers have talked to many kinds of people and considered the multiplicity of domains in social life. The differentiated picture shows not only the uneven seepage of science and medicine into social life, but also the uneven effects of different social conditions on the possibilities for the formation of health identities.

What all of this means is that the age of commoditized healthcare, like the age of commoditized shopping, is at a crossroads. Smart brand teams will rethink the way healthcare is marketed, focusing less on a list of attributes and sterile claims, and more on the shared experience of the different parties in the healthcare exchange. The doctors in these systems already treat and administer to the “self.” It’s time for the system itself to do the same.

By Matt Cloud and Gavin

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