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In the year that just ended, hospitals stepped up their spending on advertising.

Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports that academic medical centers are some of the latest airing commercials coast to coast.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: The biggest spenders on advertising are also, not surprisingly, the household names. Mayo Clinic, Mount Sinai and New York Presbyterian led the way for the first half of 2011. Overall, hospitals shelled out 20 percent more during that period than in the prior year, according to the research firm Kantar Media.

One of the newcomers trying its luck on the national stage is Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

ANNOUNCER: And the most amazing part is that the most amazing part is yet to come. That's the promise of discovery.

FARMER: In the last year, the Nashville-based teaching hospital bought ad time on CNN, Fox News, and NPR. Jill Austin is Vanderbilt's chief marketing officer.

JILL AUSTIN: We think of it almost as a service to the public, to get the word out.

FARMER: The Vanderbilt ads primarily focus on treatments for cancer and heart disease that are based on an individual's DNA, but Austin says luring patients hasn't been the primary goal.

AUSTIN: Ultimately it helps us attract students to Vanderbilt, faculty and staff. You know, we ourselves are proud of the work that we do, so it's really focused in that direction.

FARMER: Despite what some institutions say, Joel English of the Milwaukee-based marketing firm BVK says the thrust of national marketing isn't recruiting or even fundraising.

JOEL ENGLISH: There are ancillary benefits to an effective regional or national campaign. That said, during a time in health care where dollars are precious, I don't believe those would be the key reasons for a national campaign. I think the key reason is to attract more patients.

FARMER: Several teaching hospitals have tried raising their national profiles in recent years. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center launched a multi-million dollar campaign in 2005. The University of Michigan Health System has been on NPR and bought ads in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. English says a lot of the impetus is shrinking Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, which put a particular squeeze on teaching hospitals.

ENGLISH: To sustain their research and education and patient care, they have to extend beyond their traditional geographic boundaries.

FARMER: The concept is relatively new. Twenty years ago, you wouldn't catch an academic medical center using its name and the term marketing in the same sentence, says Betsy Gelb, a University of Houston marketing professor.

BETSY GELB: We have gotten to the point where it isn't a dirty word.

FARMER: Gelb points to nearby MD Anderson Cancer Center, part of the University of Texas. It launched its first national campaign in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

ANNOUNCER: There's only one you, and only one MD Anderson.

FARMER: The TV spots and print ads are meant for the eyes of patients who've gotten a tough diagnosis. But Gelb says as much as anything, the institution wants its name in front of physicians who ultimately make the referrals. The goals vary, Gelb says, and most are hard to measure.

GELB: You can't necessarily quantify it - hey, 56 patients came in last year. But you can say the difference from before to after is significantly positive, or it isn't.

FARMER: For the latest to broaden its horizons, Vanderbilt reports a statistically significant change. However, the University of Michigan Health System wasn't exactly thrilled with the results of its national ads. A spokesman says it recently moved its national marketing away from pricey traditional media and to the web instead.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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