Selling Providence

In these brief comments, I reflect on the way Providence (formally Providence Health and Services) markets itself.  At every Providence site I have seen—and I have seen many in the Portland area—these five framed posters are displayed.  It is a way for Providence to say who they are.


You can imagine that the process that produced this array of five virtues could have
begun at the biblical end with the five cited scriptures and then worked “upward” to the named virtues and then outward to the question of how to attach these names to the present concerns of people needing healthcare.  Or you can imagine that went the other way, with the needs and hopes of potential customers first, then the panoply of named virtues, and finally specific scripture citations.

If you imagine the second of those, which I, with no real knowledge of the process, take for granted, the first work is done by the marketers, using sophisticated market research surveys  The second work is done by people I call “the branders,” whose job is to establish and convey an image of some sort to the public.  The third work is done by someone in the organization—it is, after all a Roman Catholic organization—who knows the Bible and can choose appropriate verses to be attached to the virtues.

The Virtues

Here are the named virtues, with a few reflections on them.

Justice, The prophet, Micah, who might as well have never said another thing in his life, 6:8

There is a vertical dimension here: humility with God, and also a horizontal dimension, comprising justice and kindness.  Presumably these have different audiences.

Excellence us supported by Luke (12:48) who says that much will be required from those to whom much has been entrusted.  The crucial word here is “much,” and the meaning of that word will have to be determined from the context.

Respect draws on Genesis, which teaches that everyone has been made in the image of God, whatever that means, and is thereby due what God is due.  Very often that is translated “fear” as in “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but here is would be akin to “respect.”

Compassion is based on the observation made in Matthew 4:24 that Jesus taught and healed with compassion for all.[3]  It is hard to understand what that might mean in the context of the Providence Healthcare system, which is not called upon to have compassion for anyone who cannot afford to be their patient.

Stewardship is rooted in Psalm 24:1, which teaches that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.  This could be understood to mean that, since it doesn’t belong to us, we have some responsibility to care for it.

Smiling healthcare workers with their arms crossedIt is easy to be critical of these choices of crucial virtues and/or of the choice to attach a fragment of scripture to each of them and/or of the particular scripture that is chosen.  I get dizzy just imagining the project that produced these five little posters.  Presumably someone in the Providence system knows the scriptures and someone understands marketing.  Very likely, those are not the same people, although you never know.  The marketing people know the virtues they want associate with the Providence brand.  Someone else—some third body—has decided that there ought to be scriptures attached to each one.  And then someone has to make the choice of which fragments to use.

Problem 1: Societal Setting

There are no scriptures whatsoever that reflect the tensions of practicing healing in a highly developed mass consumption-based economy.  So whoever is in charge of choosing the scriptures is going to have to go for something like “tone” or to make the tie in so general that it will be thought to apply.  So the value-to-scripture connection will always be tenuous.

The marketing-to-value connection isn’t that hard, so long as market research is trusted and so long as healthcare systems are not treated with automatic cynicism.  The marketing people need only ask what virtues will incline potential customers to choose the Providence system rather than any of its competitors.  I am quite sure that in these five, we are looking at the winners of such research.

The Directly Relevant Virtues

Who would not want a healthcare system that is compassionate, excellent, and respectful?  These are values, and therefore traits, that bear directly on the relationship between the healthcare providers of all sorts and the patient.  The patient wants the care to be excellent (even more, probably, than efficient) and wants to be treated with respect and compassion.

The Indirectly (if at all) Relevant Virtues

The other two are harder.  “Stewardship” could be construed to refer to Providence’s commitment to value and care for the resources the patients invest in them.  It might be evidenced by a refusal to perform unnecessary procedures or to require expensive procedures when less expensive ones work just as well.

I call those relevant meanings.  This is not the direction, however, that the chosen quotation points.  “The earth is the Lord’s” sounds like an environmental admonition of some sort.  It works just fine for identifying the Providence brand, but it gets wobbly.  You could, if you were the marketing department, swing for the fences and quote the Johannine Jesus (18:9) to the effect that God has given him these few disciples and that, due to his stewardship, not a one of them was lost.  Unnecessarily.

“Justice” is hard too.  First, it is a virtue chosen out of the three—humility and kindness are the other two—for emphasis.  In the context of the prophet Micah, “justice” is a social virtue based on being fair to the poor and vulnerable.  However the doctors might feel personally, Providence cannot be corporately fair to the poor and vulnerable.  “Justice” might be rendered minimally as “not unjust” to its patients, which might be treated as if the patients got good value for the money they spend.  It is harder to tie that back to Micah, of course, but how many people really look up the scriptural citations?


I suppose I would have made different choices if the project has been left up to me.  At a minimum, I might say that the virtues chosen ought to reflect our practices (the actual practices of Providence Healthcare) or at the very least, the practices we aspire to. Stewardship and Justice don’t do that as I understand them.

It would be easy to imply that it is not Providence Healthcare Systems exhibits these values, but each and every one of these values is attached—very loosely sometimes—to a fragment of scripture.  That troubles me.  I understand that President George W. Bush requires that the daily security briefing must come to him with a scripture verse on it.  Such a use precludes understanding a verse in context, as does this use by Providence.

So the problem as I have set it up is that the branding project of which these five posters are part goes from the marketers, who know what alleged virtues will make a healthcare system attractive to the paying public, to the branders, who choose names for these virtues that will meet the market requirements, to the biblicists, who produce a “relevant” verse for each of the named virtues.

I realize that marketers to branders to biblicists has overtones of Tinker to Evers to Chance, the old double-play combination made famous by the Chicago Cubs.  I hear the echoes; I just don’t know what I can do about it.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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