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Don’t let the doctor die

Shivaji Dasgupta, Managing Director, Inexgro Brand Advisory, writes how the corona crisis can actually be an incredible platform to reinstate the stature of the doctor

Shivaji Dasgupta

As the sub-optimal offspring of a surgeon father, now departed, there is a simple submission I must make. It is our intelligent duty to nurture the doctor for the most selfish reasons — health and longevity. If she does encounter an untimely demise, mankind will not survive the ensuing scars.

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The demise I am referring to is alarmingly both physical and metaphorical — the former in the line of noble duty and the latter by the fury of ignoble missiles. Quite like soldiers protecting our pensive borders, too many of this creed have lost the battle against the Chinese virus. But not before enabling many undeserving to survive and often resume the tirade against their saviours, at the next available non-ventilated breath. In India and elsewhere the protective preparation resembled the earlier Chinese aggression of 1962, brave warriors murdered by policy apathy.

But this article is from a branding lens, about restoring the valuable stature of this profession, by applying principles of strategic marketing. In the Calcutta where I was born, medicine was decreed a noble profession and respect was an inevitable stock-in-trade — demi-god not much of an exaggeration. Practitioners faced many hurdles, notably that of economic stability in the ever-lengthy early years, while infrastructure often thwarted the finest skills. During the power shortages of the 1970s, surgeries were occasionally completed in torchlight, facilities never in tune with faculties. But a simple truth persisted across the nation, we always held the doctor in reverential esteem.

But then as India became more affluent, our perception of the medical profession seemingly changed. From being experts of a complex and literally life-changing craft, the doctor became a specialised service provider — specialised but a service provider, nonetheless. This avoidable fallacy in brand positioning attributable to the underwhelming managements of the 1990s, who focused hungrily on short-run revenue maximisation and not value creation. Thus, facilitating the advent of a swiftly-escalating narrative — that the corporate hospital was out to ruin our finances in the guise of reviving our health. The timeless cultural equity of the doctor would soon become collateral damage.  

Almost overnight, patients were expected to forge a relationship with an impressive building and renounce the bond with the individual doctor. A major insight blunder as the primary source of respect was this human relationship — detached from the operating (pun intended) establishment. Starting from the family doctor, a real and not fake uncle, to every possible specialist — invariably past experience and referrals led to the choice of physician. Corporate hospitals would have been well advised to maintain this equilibrium between service and expertise, emulating the banner-star balance of the film industry. Professionalism and standardisation achieved by Disney Studios while the magnet of exceptional value still the directors, actors and technicians.

By equating the wisdom of the doctor with the calibre of the hospital brand, we undermined the worth of the exceptional expertise. Hospitals were clearly keen to make themselves the primary brand, to build exit barriers for patients in case their consultants moved to a different paymaster. Thus, hoardings and advertisements screamed unabashedly about the technology, the luxuries and the packages while muting the credentials and experience of the lead performers. From a strategic perspective a blunder quite colossal, the core competency of the business camouflaged by undifferentiated short-lived gambits. In tune with this re-casting, the ever-demanding unschooled customer unfairly expected the doctor to be just an attentive service provider.  

This ill-advised shift towards a process value could easily have been a different agenda — the hospital at its best self a value-adding aggregator of super-skilled experts and not the fundamental source of value. Even airlines manage this testing tightrope much better — not even the grumpiest passenger dares to derail the pilot’s composure while they may be merrily traumatising ground staff. Now consider that the service in question is life and death — in the absence of the right perspective, uneducated patients feel justified in abusing the physician in a continuum of disgruntled reactivity. And of course, there are the truthful cases of overcharging and apathy— which act as evil media-driven amplifiers in fuelling such assumptions.

So how can intelligent re-positioning enable the doctor to regain his rightful place? By kicking off with the ‘aura’ insight applicable to both treatment and war — the exploits of those at the top leading to a chain of respect for every practitioner. General Cariappa’s heroics added sheen to the minutest infantryman while Devi Shetty’s legend can make everybody in cardiac care look special. There are thousands of credible heroes across the nation, currently lost under the commoditised sheen of the ‘corporate’ brand or state healthcare — we need to simply bring them to the fore of attention. It is corporate habit to downplay the individual to highlight the team but high-skilled expertise, like it or not, has honestly been about the unusually talented brandishing a celestial skill.

Quite unsuspectingly, the corona crisis can actually be an incredible platform to reinstate the stature of the doctor, while allotting a valuable role for the corporate brand. Our respect for the armed forces emanates both from the living legends and the dead martyrs— in this case the loss of so many fine souls in selfless pursuit must be projected as national heroism in private and public forms. While the performing stalwarts in every city, must be marketed as uniquely accomplished individuals and not just as card-carrying members of a specialisation or department. Granted, this will once again resurrect the ‘star individual’ culture but this time with a much-needed halo that will benefit every practitioner and re-craft public imagination.

For this the corporate hospitals must act like aggregators and not value owners— pardon the trivial analogy but a Swiggy and Tripadvisor does appear as references. The true customer magnets are the restaurants and the destinations, while these brands facilitate last-mile access through pricing, analysis, technology and infrastructure. As opposed to acting like Mckinsey or PWC, the organisational brand superseding the plethora of talent, which works well for that business but not for this. In communication and action, the patient-doctor relationships must be magnified, as opposed to artificial institutional connectivity. Everybody will gain by the restoration of this equilibrium, the hospital chains particularly and society at large.

Busting expectation and tradition, I did not become a doctor but that was purely because of laziness and inaptitude. The youth of today are talented, motivated and inspired by meaningfulness and purpose — no better career than medicine to fulfil this troika of ambitions.  For that though, we must urgently restore the stature of the doctor — as an extraordinary expert, by training and calling, and not yet another service provider. When the doctor lives we live, this truth must never be allowed to die.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of and we do not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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