Cheerios® Teaching Consumers Facts About Laboratory Testing

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FOR YEARS, BOTH HOSPITAL LABS and independent commercial labs considered physicians and payers to be the primary customers for lab testing.

The lab testing needs of patients as customers seldom came up when lab managers discussed how to organize and deliver their lab’s testing services. In fact, most labs limited themselves to producing an array of “patient information brochures” as their way of meeting the needs of patients and consumers.

That situation is about to change. THE DARK REPORT is in the forefront of lab industry experts predicting that individual consumers are soon to become as important to the laboratory as the physicians who order lab tests.

To be financially viable in the future, hospital labs and commercial labs will have to give consumers the same high level of attention and services as they give the clinicians who order tests and receive the results.

A growing number of signs in the marketplace prove that consumers are asserting increased control over their healthcare, including laboratory testing. One irrefutable sign of this consumer movement is the burgeoning use of the Internet by consumers looking for information about health issues affecting themselves and their families.

During the past month, THE DARK REPORT has observed three interesting signs in the marketplace that confirm consumers already know more about their lab tests than laboratorians realize.

Example one is Cheerios® cereal. While shopping, I noticed that Cheerios is making a major push to link eating its cereal to improved cardiovascular health. A teaser on the front of the cereal box says “Cheerios May Reduce Your Cholesterol!”

On the back of the box, the entire panel was devoted to the topic of cholesterol and its impact on heart disease. Cheerios provided significant information about blood cholesterol testing, including the range for acceptable test results.

I would pose this question to laboratory administrators and pathologists: What do the brand managers of Cheerios know about the typical American consumer that laboratorians overlook? I would suggest that the brand managers of Cheerios have invested in exhaustive market studies and focus groups. They believe that, once consumers understand how Cheerios might contribute to improved health, consumers will buy Cheerios over competing brands.

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Without getting into clinical arguments about the specific health benefits of Cheerios, my point is that the Cheerios’ brand managers know that consumers will respond to product attributes they perceive as health-enhancing.

My next example is equally entertaining. On a recent trip to Chicago to do a speech, I was riding the train from O’Hare Airport to the Loop. Along the way, I saw a billboard for the Illinois Lottery. It was a picture of an obviously obese man, with fried eggs over his eyes, saying “I play my cholesterol level.” Next to it were three lotto balls, reading 2-5-9.

It took me a couple of days to realize the significance of that billboard. This billboard joke works only if most people who see it know: a) that high levels of cholesterol are not healthy; b) that eating fried foods (like fried eggs) generates high cholesterol levels; c) that blood cholesterol tests generate results measured typically in three digits; and d) that the score of 259 presented on the billboard is a typical cholesterol test result. In other words, this simple billboard presupposes a vast amount of specific knowledge about cholesterol testing among a sizeable segment of the population.

My third example came during a speech I was making before the CLMA regional group in Richmond, Virginia. There was a vendor exhibit hall. As I walked by the booths, I saw an interesting item at the display for Abbott Laboratories. It was a little brochure that folded down to the size of a business card. It was a brochure for men, covering common lab tests that would be done at annual physical exams.

Each panel of the brochure was dedicated to a specific laboratory test. Below a description of the lab test was about eight to ten blank lines. The man could use these blank lines to write in the date and the specific results from that test.

This brochure was designed to be carried by a man in his wallet. He could use it for many years to summarize key lab test results, including PSA and cholesterol tests. Of course, it goes without saying that all the specific lab tests printed on this brochure were offered by Abbott Laboratories.

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“Branding” Of Lab Tests

With this brochure, Abbott Labs is directly helping consumers take a more involved role in their lab testing. It is also “branding” Abbott’s versions of lab tests, developing a consumer preference for “Abbott” over another vendors. (Anyone for a Coke®?)

Each of these three examples demonstrate that consumer awareness and interest in their laboratory test results is increasing. Each company expects to profit by going straight to the consumer with specific information about clinical laboratory tests.

I think it is equally significant that these three advertising examples caught my attention in a relatively short four-week period. Just imagine what motivated consumers can find on the topic of clinical laboratory testing if they actively search for it!

Most laboratorians will find the Cheerios Box and Illinois Lottery billboard to be entertaining. But there is a deeper business message to be acknowledged. Consumers’ attitudes about their lab tests are shifting in fundamental and important ways.

Whereas most consumers were passive patients—that is, they quietly tolerated the needle stick when blood was drawn, then obligingly followed their doctor’s instructions when he told them the lab results were “not good.”

Now an increasing number of consumers, when told they must have some lab tests, ask questions about why specific tests are being ordered. When the test results are available, they frequently want a copy of the lab report and ask about the meaning of each test result number.

It was not without reason that Quest Diagnostics Incorporated partnered with MedPlus, Inc. to make lab test results available to patients on the Web site earlier this year. Quest Diagnostics has already recognized this shift in consumer attitudes. It is moving ahead of the entire lab industry to capitalize on these new consumer expectations. It fully expects to gain competitive advantage, and earn more profits, by paying closer attention to the needs of these “new” patients.

Taken collectively, the three marketing examples and Quest Diagnostics’ efforts to make lab test results available to patients represent strong evidence that the shift in consumer attitudes has already occurred.

Currently it is the “early adopters” among consumers who are vocally demanding more knowledge about testing from their doctors and laboratories. But the mass consumer market is catching up and will become increasingly influential.

To Impact Hospital Labs

This is a consumer trend which will impact hospital laboratories as well as commercial laboratories. After all, the inpatient brings the same expectations to his hospital experience that he does when he visits his doctor’s office.

Faced with marketplace evidence of this growing consumer trend, lab administrators and pathologists should develop appropriate business strategies. Consumers must get the same level of attention and service to their needs which laboratories currently devote to physicians and payers. However, this will probably be a good thing, because patients want to choose their doctors. They will soon want the ability to choose their laboratory as well.


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