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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Amidst all the debate over extending health care to the uninsured, hospitals across the country have been aggressively competing for customers. They're advertising on TV, radio, billboards, magazines. The ads promote cutting-edge technology or new patient services. We'll hear more about that in a few minutes.

First, to one hospital outside Dallas that's come up with a different approach - speed dating between doctors and potential patients. Jenny Gold of our partner Kaiser Health News has this story.

Ms. JENNY GOLD (Reporter, Kaiser Health News): Twenty people are gathered at a hospital in Bedford, Texas on a Tuesday afternoon. But it's not because they're sick. They're doctors and patients meeting each other for the first time.

It works the same way as romantic speed dating, where singles meet as many potential dates as possible in a short amount of time. The meeting room is set up like a little caf� with colorful tablecloths and vases of lilies on each table. And at each one, a local pediatrician is waiting for his or her blind date.

Dr. James Wheeler smiles as a pregnant woman approaches his table.

Ms. KIM GAGE: Hi. I'm Kim Gage. It's nice to meet you.

Dr. JAMES WHEELER (Pediatrician): How far along?

Ms. GAGE: I'm...

Dr. WHEELER: I'm assuming - I usually am not too cavalier about that question, but I thought I was safe here.

Ms. GAGE: You are safe here.

Ms. GOLD: Kim Gage's beloved pediatrician moved away, so she's come here to find a new one. Other people here are unhappy with their current doctor or are first time parents looking for the right fit. And they all have a lot of questions.

Unidentified Woman #1: What are your philosophies about childrearing? Do you have any children?

Unidentified Man: Something happens in the middle of the night, my wife and I don't know what to do, what happens then?

Unidentified Woman #2: And what is the office environment like? Do you have like a...

Ms. GOLD: Each pair gets just five minutes to chat.

(Soundbite of bell)

And it's time to rotate. That's barely enough time to get out the name of the hospital - Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Hurst-Euless-Bedford.

The amount hospitals spend on marketing has more than doubled over the last decade. It's less than one percent of revenue for the average hospital, but it still adds up to more than $1 million a year. That can be difficult during these tough economic times. Hospital President Debbie Paganelli.

Ms. DEBBIE PAGANELLI (President, Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Hurst-Euless-Bedford): We did this last year when the economy was kind of helter-skelter for everybody and everybody's trying to figure out how to cut some expenses. And our marketing dollars became very tight.

Ms. GOLD: The hospital used to have two flashy billboards on the highway nearby, but they got too expensive. The speed dating event costs just $600 to put on and they were able to advertise for free through Facebook, Twitter and email.

Ms. PAGANELLI: It just ended up being a win-win all the way around.

Ms. GOLD: Hospital marketing can be a challenge. Susan Dubuque is on the board of the Society for Health Care Strategy and Market Development.

Ms. Susan Dubuque (Board member, Society for Health Care Strategy and Market Development): Health care is not like retail marketing. I can't very well do a sale and say, we have a sale on appendectomies today. Come on down and have your appendectomy. Health care is so different because it is episodic.

Ms. GOLD: Sometimes, a hospital might advertise an elective procedure, but mostly they depend on building up their brand over time.

Ms. DUBUQUE: Because you never know when the need will arise for any individual patient for a health care service.

Ms. GOLD: So far, the Texas Health speed dating events are working. The hospital's held five so far and the doctors seem happy. One OB-GYN says she's gotten 10 new patients this way. That doesn't mean 10 instant patients for the hospital, though, because the doctors often practice independently. But when hospitals help physicians, the business trickles back over time in referrals for surgeries, tests and other procedures.

Mr. TRAVIS SINGLETON (Senior vice president, Merritt Hawkings): Physicians drive health care, period.

Ms. GOLD: Travis Singleton is a senior vice president at Merritt Hawkins, a physician placement firm.

Mr. SINGLETON: Ninety percent of the health care dollars that are spent in today's marketplace are through the physician's pen - whether that's patients they admit, whether that's tests they administer, whether that's procedures they order, whether that's insurance they bill.

So as a hospital, if you're truly trying to run your business in the most efficient and financially viable way possible, you need to make sure that you have the most physician-friendly environment, where they feel comfortable.

Ms. GOLD: For Kim Gage, the marketing campaign may have helped her find the pediatrician she's been searching for.

Would you come back?

Ms. GAGE: I would, definitely. Yeah. And I would recommend it. It didn't take long, you got free lunch, and you got to meet the doctors.

Ms. GOLD: And she says there's nothing bad about that.

For NPR News, I'm Jenny Gold.

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