Whole books have been written about the power of names and naming in healthcare. And a recent announcement exemplifies the opportunities and potential pitfalls of clever naming.

As Joe Schulz reported for Wisconsin Public Radio online on April 30, “Two Wisconsin health systems that merged in 2022 announced a new for their organization on Tuesday. Belling Health and Gundersen Health System, which initially kept their respective names, will transition toward operating as Emplify Health. ‘We amplify empathy,’ said Dr. Scott Rathgaber, chief executive officer of the merged health system. ‘It’s who Bellin and Gundersen have been for well over a century.”

Meanwhile, a non-bylined report published on May 5 in the Eagle Herald of Marinette and Menominee [towns in northeastern and northwestern Wisconsin, respectively] began thus: “For more than a century, Bellin Health and Gundersen Health System have been steady members of communities throughout Wisconsin, Northeast Iowa, Southeast Minnesota and Northern Michigan embodying excellence in care. The two strong, industry-leading health systems finalized their merger of equals in December 2022, last week they announced they will become Emplify Health to continue serving our community healthcare needs.”

Per that, the Eagle Herald report continued, “Meet Emplify Health ‘Drawn from ‘empathy,’ defined as ‘feeling aware of another’s emotions’ and ‘amplify,’ which means ‘increase,’ Emplify is a new word created to reflect a united goal of increasing access, creating a culture of empathy and enhancing population health outcomes for the patients and communities we serve,’ said Scott Rathgaber, CEO, Bellin and Gundersen Health System.”

And that report quoted Rathgaber as stating that “We are standing on the shoulders of the enduring legacies of Bellin Health and Gundersen Health System and the thousands of people who have helped grow and nurture the system brands. Today, we are embracing the journey to something new, strong and shared. By unifying under one brand, we align our teams and our resources to provide the best possible care and experience for our patients and community,” Rathgaber said. “Emplify Health is more than a name. It’s a promise. It’s a symbol of trust. It is a continuation and evolution of our shared legacies. It prepares us for the future.”

Rathgaber added that “This change will take time’ New identities take time to build. Transitioning Bellin and Gundersen to Emplify Health will not happen overnight. Over the next several months the new brand will be slowly and thoughtfully incorporated into the health system.”

Meanwhile, Heather Schimmers, president of the Gundersen region for Emplify Health, explained of the name that “It’s ’empathy’ and ‘amplify’ mashed together to form a neologism, and it really speaks to us. It’s at the core of who we are. That’s what we do.” Schimmers told Giles Bruce of Becker’s Hospital Review in his May 9 article that she and Rathgaber have learned a great deal in their health system’s process about terms such as “brand architecture” and “brand migration,” with “brand architecture referring to the structure of brands within an organization.  “The loyalty to those brands is very strong, and we need to really respect the heritage and the legacy that those brands represent,” Ms. Schimmers told Bruce.

All that said, the health system has already launched its updated website, and there, declares that, “Emplify Health is comprised of two of the Midwest’s most respected health systems. By uniting our 11 hospitals and more than 100 clinics across Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you’ll have access to a broader care network, including top-tier clinical services, shared provider expertise and innovative medical education programs.” In the “about us” section, the health system notes that  it encompasses 1,400-plus “providers,” 3,200-plus nurses, $210 million in community investment, and serves 67 cities and communities in Wisconsin.

Only time will tell whether community members accept the “Emplify Health” name. But an intense rebrand such as this one isn’t unheard of. As The Advisory Board asked in a 2016 analysis entitled “Behind a name change: What’s in it for hospitals, health systems?” “Why would one of the nation’s largest health systems change its name? ‘Because in an era where patients are now consumers, brand matters in health care,’ Jeff Lagasse writes for Healthcare Finance News. When North Shore-Long Island Jewish health system changed its name to Northwell Health in September, it was looking to send a message. Although it was already one of the largest health systems in the New York City area—and the 14th largest in the country—its Long Island roots came through a little too strongly for some system leaders.” Healthcare Finance News’s Lagasse had quoted CEO Michael Dowling as stating that “The old name localized us as being too Long Island-focused, when the bulk of our organization has expanded beyond Long Island. We’re the largest hospital system and largest private employer in New York state.” “Rebranding the 21-hospital system was a large undertaking,” the report noted. “But as the health care market has become more consumer-oriented, the need for a name change became more important.” “The consumers out there make choices based on what they believe you are,” Dowling had told Healthcare Finance News.

Also quoted in that article was  Mark Viden, the vice president of brand marketing at Dignity Health, which had changed its name from Catholic Healthcare West in 2012 (with Catholic Healthcare West itself created in 1986 in the merger of 10 Catholic hospitals in Northern California). Dignity’s VP of brand marketing, told The Advisory Board that a name can be a powerful tool to focus an organization. “A name is something that I think carries an organization forward,” he says. For instance, “Dignity” eludes to the system’s Catholic roots—but doesn’t specifically reference a religion, which Viden says can help with marketing its non-Catholic hospitals, Viden explains.” But, he added, a name change also needs to be paired with an effective marketing campaign to educate consumers and send the right message about the new name’s meaning.

Of course, things can move in an opposite direction as well, as Healthcare Dive’s Susan Kelly noted in an April 2022 report entitled “Ascension, AdventHealth make breakup official, renaming hospitals.” Kelly wrote that “Ascension and AdventHealth are moving forward to dissolve their joint operating company Amita Health, formed seven years ago to serve the Chicago area. The decision to part ways was first announced in October. Both systems said last week they would rename their Amita-branded hospitals to reflect the change,” Kelly wrote. “Fourteen hospitals and more than 150 sites of care, previously part of Alexian Brothers Health System and Presence Health, will now operate under the Ascension Illinois umbrella. Employed doctors and their teams will be part of Ascension Medical Group. AdventHealth said it will be the sole operator of four Amita hospitals in the greater Chicago area that will carry its name going forward. Physician practices affiliated with the facilities will be renamed AdventHealth Medical Group to reflect the national brand,” she added.

Local healthcare consumers could be forgiven for their confusion, given that all the changes over the last several years involving those health systems meant that, for example, St. Joseph’s Hospital in the East Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago has been covered by four different corporate health system names since 2011: Resurrection Health, Presence Health, Amita Health, and now Ascension Health. That’s a lot, and there are probably healthcare marketing experts who would like to have a word or two with the higher-ups of those various systems.

So there is a risk to naming and renaming. And surveys have shown that some health system names have never caught on with consumers. One obvious point is that any name must have some resonance with local healthcare consumers, and the cleverer the name, perhaps paradoxically, the less resonance it might potentially have.

No one knows for sure whether a name will be accepted long-term or not. But good luck and godspeed to the Emplify Health folks: one can only hope that their new combined name will do what it’s supposed to do: inspire the local community and make patients and families more eager (rather than less) to seek patient care from that health system. And as time goes on, this name, like all the other names of merged patient care organizations, will undergo the true test—broad acceptance/embracing on the part of patients and families in their communities. Only with time—and experience—can the verdict become known.



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