Partners dissolves into Mass General Brigham. I’m quoted in the Boston Globe

Massachusetts General Hospital and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital joined together as Partners HealthCare 25 years ago. Now they’re changing the name to Mass General Brigham, spending up to $100 million in the process. I’m quoted on the subject in a recent front page Boston Globe article (In major rebranding, Partners HealthCare to change name to Mass General Brigham).

What’s in a name, you may ask? In this case it’s worth parsing the change and exploring the history.

What does Partners mean anyway?

Partners HealthCare never had much brand equity. The word “partners” really described the decision of the two hospitals to partner with one another to offset the power of managed care organizations to play them off against one another. All HMOs needed one of those hospitals in their network, but not both. With Partners it was all or nothing. Partners had no problem playing “take it or leave it” right from the get go, nearly bringing Tufts Health Plan to its knees in the late 90s.

So unlike your typical business combination, which relies on elimination of duplication and other efficiencies to be successful, Partners succeeded right away by virtue of its enhanced market power and high pricing. Duplication remained –and remains to this day. MGH and the Brigham continued to move forward on their own while a new Partners overhead was introduced. No one –not patients, not doctors, not nurses– developed any attachment to Partners as an entity.

Why keep General?

Massachusetts General Hospital has kept the same name since its charter was granted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1811. It’s a proud name, and maybe sometimes a little too proud. (Some say MGH stands for Man’s Greatest Hospital.)

“Massachusetts” is shortened and “Hospital” is omitted from the new name. Of all the words to keep, why was “General” left intact? It seems so… generic. But it also reminds us of the grand era of American industry. General Motors. General Electric. General Atomics. (Remember that one.) The idea was that the one General company could dominate the industry and we’d all be the better for it.

Outside of this state, errr… Commonwealth, “Mass” doesn’t necessarily mean Massachusetts. It could mean a Catholic Mass or a big pile of something. But MGH is so often referred to here and abroad as Mass General that it must have seemed safe to trim it down officially, since the whole name is long anyway.

Where did the Women go?

How did Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) get its name? Unlike MGH, BWH went through some name changes, although none recently. The Boston Lying in Hospital was founded in 1832 and the Free Hospital for Women came about in 1875. They merged in 1966 to become the Boston Hospital for Women. (Apparently that name didn’t stick right away, since I was always told I was born in the Lying in Hospital –even though I was born after the merger.)

In 1980, the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, Robert Breck Brigham Hospital and Boston Hospital for Women merged (not partnered) to become BWH.

If they had called it the Women’s and Brigham the Women’s name might have survived the latest consolidation rather than being unceremoniously lopped off.

GSK not G SK

Back in the 1980s and 1990s a lot of big pharmaceutical companies merged. It was typical for them to drop the last name of their multiword names when they did. For example, SmithKline & French became SmithKline Beckman after merging with Beckman and then SmithKline Beecham after merging with Beecham.

When Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham came together they followed a similar path. But you may notice they went with GlaxoSmithKline rather than Glaxo SmithKline, because the SmithKline people thought that would make it harder to get rid of their name later on. That’s a true story. I was there.

The stratagem has worked so far.

I wonder whether the BWH folks lobbied for MassGeneralBrigham to avoid a similar fate down the road.

When did Hospital become a bad word?

Remember when there were doctors and hospitals? Now it’s providers, medical centers and health systems. Hospitals still dominate economically and politically, but there is a general (and welcome) shift to lower acuity settings of care. Meanwhile Partners has vacuumed up so many other hospitals, physicians and other players that “hospital” no longer belongs in the name.

An interesting marker of the new company’s brand equity and name recognition is that unlike virtually every other new healthcare organization or company, it omits the word “health” from its name. People already understand it’s a healthcare organization.

What about Harvard?

MGH and BWH are both Harvard hospitals. So why not just call it the Harvard Hospital System or Harvard Health System? The use of the Harvard name could be a topic for its own post (Harvard Pilgrim –originally Harvard Community Health Plan and soon to merge with Tufts but with no name announced yet– is a great example) but the simple answer is that while MGH and BWH are Harvard hospitals, there are others like Beth Israel Deaconess and Boston Children’s that are also affiliated with the University.

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By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

December 4, 2019

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