Turns out, shame and fear don't fight cancer

Texas-based Solis Women’s Health, the country’s largest breast imaging company, promises a “peaceful mammogram” on its brochures. 

Shame and fear – that’s the way marketers have traditionally tried to convince women to strip down in a cold room and squish their breasts between two plastic paddles.

Dr. Steve Woloshin, a professor of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, remembers one American Cancer Society ad from the 1980s that stated, "If you’re a woman over 35 and you haven’t had a mammogram, you need more than your breasts examined.”

“That was the classic persuasive message telling women if you don’t get screened, you’re crazy, you need your head examined," Woloshin says.

Scaring women about cancer is still the norm, but that could be shifting.

No Scolding Allowed

"Avoid anxiety": That's the mantra at the country’s largest breast imaging company in the country – Texas-based Solis Women’s Health.

At Solis Women’s Health centers across the U.S., employees don’t just steer clear of scaring women, they avoid talking cancer at all.

"Fear is not a motivator. It’s typically something that will cause people to procrastinate,” says Kate Maguire, president of Motivation Mechanics, a group of Philadelphia-based research and marketing strategists who worked for Solis Women’s Health.

After interviewing women about what they wanted in a mammography experience, Maguire – whose grandmother and mother had breast cancer – outlined a major marketing makeover.

The Makeover

Here are a few examples of what Solis Women’s Health changed:

Terminology: Women are referred to as visitors, instead of patients.

Clinic Layout: There are two different hallways, one for women coming in for a standard screening and another for women who have been called back for additional imaging. This helps reduce anxiety for the women who are nervous after being called back, Maguire says, because they don't see people leaving faster. 

Tagline: The old tagline at Solis was “Annual mammograms, it’s what smart women do.” That phrase, says VP of marketing Greg Scott, was a "bad girl message.”

Now, the tagline is “When you’re ready, we’ll be there for you.” 

Cost & Convenience

Breast imaging is big business. A report from Frost & Sullivan estimates revenues of $1 billion in 2011, and an expected rise to $1.4 billion in 2016.

But, from a business perspective, there are two main barriers to getting women in the door for screenings: financial and emotional. The Affordable Care Act, by making mammograms a fully-covered service, has cut the cost obstacle.

Now, there’s the psychological barrier – which companies like Solis Women’s Health are trying to counter by alleviating the fear that comes with scheduling and going through with a mammogram.

Marketing director Greg Scott says, by offering convenient, fast visits and fast results (within 24-48 hours by email if there is no additional screening required) his company is pushing past the competition.

Solis Women’s Health saw about 240,000 women in 2013, Scott says, and for the first quarter of 2014, growth was more than 10 percent in Dallas-Fort Worth and 4 percent nationwide.

Conflicting Messages

Steve Woloshin of Dartmouth says deciding whether to get a mammogram is much more complicated than any glossy brochure may suggest.

“The reason it’s controversial is the evidence supporting mammography, even though intuitively it seems like it’s got to be the right thing to do, the evidence we have isn’t so clear cut.”

Mammograms do save lives, Woloshin says, but they can also have downsides: false alarms, follow-up testing, and over-diagnosis.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association says for every 10,000 women, mammograms probably save five lives of women in their 40s, ten lives of women in their 50s, and 42 lives of women in their 60s. Meanwhile, half of women screened for ten years have a “false positive” – a suspicious mammogram that leads to a repeat test or biopsy on a healthy breast.

Ultimately, decisions on whether or not to get a mammogram, he says, should be individualized. And the decision should be based on information, rather than fear.

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