Marketing a Miracle Medical Tool

A program grows to bring patients to Hawaii for gamma knife treatment.

July, 2001

Neurosurgeons involved in the Gamma Knife Center of the Pacific are making surprising discoveries every day about the skills they require to maximize the potential of their revolutionary $3 million medical tool. As the stereotactic radiosurgery instrument becomes more widely used as a painless alternative to conventional neurosurgery, they’re learning that such un-doctor-like disciplines as marketing, fund-raising, Internet communications and education are becoming almost as essential as their treatment of intracranial tumors, vascular malformations and trigeminal neuralgia.

Although there are 142 Leksell Gamma Knives in the world, and 58 in the United States, the remarkable tool now situated in a special lead-shielded vault in the Mama Lau Cancer Care Center at St. Francis Medical Center is the only one available in the far reaches of the Pacific. Convincing governments, doctors and patients in countries like New Zealand and Australia, as well as in Canada, to utilize Hawaii’s advanced Gamma Knife technology and services for specialized treatments has become a major marketing and communications goal of the local center. So far the results are encouraging.

The first New Zealand patient arrived in Honolulu in late May and was treated for acoustic neurinoma, a form of intracranial tumor, by Dr. Maurice Nicholson, neurosurgeon and Medical Director at the GKCP, whose fund-raising efforts and belief in the sophisticated technology resulted in the opening of the center in December 1998. “In New Zealand, this is a major operation, with risk of paralysis and even death,” Nicholson says. “What makes the Gamma Knife so unique is that it treats this condition with no incision, and without general anesthesia. There is little pain or discomfort. There is usually no hospital stay. The patient quickly resumes normal activities. We like to say he can be treated one day, and be on the beach the next.”

Competition among the limited Gamma Knife centers is increasing worldwide — another reason to accelerate GKCP’s marketing efforts. Catering to the special needs of international patients is one way that the centers are paying off the costly Swedish-developed tools. (While generally 20 to 50 percent less expensive than traditional neurosurgery, Gamma Knife treatment is still pricey—average treatment is about $35,000, compared to $50,000 for the more conventional treatment).Interestingly, the New Zealand patient was attracted to Hawaii through the GKCP Web site, after a series of on-line consultations with local physicians involved in the Gamma Knife project. At present, the Internet is the GKCP’s prime marketing tool. “Right now, we’re expanding the GKCP Web site to include country-specific pages of our three target countries,” says Moon-Yun Choi, public relations coordinator at St. Francis. “We’re positioning the GKCP as the premier facility for radio surgery in the Pacific, to service patients in other countries where there is no Gamma Knife. In this atmosphere, we also are making it known that St. Francis is thought to be the only facility in the United States with both a Gamma Knife and an MRI that can accommodate large-bodied persons.”

“But for now, one of our immediate goals is to persuade government health officials in New Zealand and Australia to analyze the costs of using Gamma Knife technology,” Nicholson says. “We want them to plainly see that it’s cheaper to send patients to Hawaii for operations than keep them at home. This treatment is going to be consumer-driven.”


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Tom Chapman