As any good business development professional knows, one of the first questions a prospective client will ask is: “What makes your company unique and what differentiates your product or service from the competition?” It sounds like a simple question, but when negotiating healthcare partnerships, it can be difficult to answer.
Partnerships come in many forms, including mergers, acquisitions, professional service agreements, strategic collaborations, and branding affiliations. In those cases where you are offering knowledge or expertise for a fee and/or equity interest (i.e., you are the dominant player in the relationship), you should be able to convince the partner of your differentiation.
Unlike other industries that are more commoditized, healthcare is highly dependent upon skilled labor – physicians, nurses, allied health professionals, etc. – and thus harder to compare across the industry. For example, in the hotel business, one can differentiate on the basis of location, style, comfort, services, amenities, occupancy, staff friendliness, efficiency, and of course, the “star rating” system (e.g., 3, 4, 5-star properties). There are numerous websites that provide very detailed information and consumer feedback in each of these areas, the results of which can be consolidated at the corporate level to determine whether a specific hotel is a good prospective partner.
In healthcare, the answer requires a bit more elegance and nuance. One can point to a roster of “star” doctors, surgeons who perform complex procedures, or positive outcomes, but there are few rating systems that allow for a quick and easy comparison across the industry (competitors may claim the same or similar attributes).
In recent years, the U.S. News and World Report’s annual ranking of hospitals has become the de facto benchmark, both in terms of overall hospital ranking and for specialty areas. As a Managing Director for Johns Hopkins Medicine International from 2008-2012, I was frequently approached by prospective clients who knew little about our physicians or services, but certainly had heard of our number one ranking in the U.S. News and World Report (perennially, for 20-plus years).
However, if you disagree with the rankings; or you are a multi-specialty clinic, ambulatory surgery center, physician practice group, or other provider not covered by the rankings, how do you differentiate? There may be certain quality and outcomes indicators available – e.g., for hospitals, Acute Myocardial Infarction, heart failure, pneumonia, surgical site infections, c.diff, falls – and clients also may take note of your size, scale, unique services, national awards, and accreditation.
The challenge for the business development professional is how to define and highlight the key attributes; customize them for the specific partner and purpose; benchmark them across the competition; and present them in a persuasive way. Furthermore, it is not enough to be the best at something, but you must be able to transfer your knowledge to the partner so that it can meet its clinical and commercial goals – keeping in mind that the partner may be located thousands of miles away. Ultimately, you must be able to differentiate and deliver.