George Washington University Hospital wants everyone to know that it brings the best minds to medicine.

At least that's the theme of an expensive newspaper, magazine and television advertising blitz launched by the hospital last November to run for six months.

"We believe that we have the best medical center in the area," said John LaRosa, dean of clinical affairs for the hospital. "But it's awfully hard in a town like this to get media attention. To some extent, you've got to go out and buy it."

George Washington isn't the only Washington area hospital to feel that way. In recent months, area hospitals have been all over local airwaves and magazine and newspaper pages touting special medical programs, treatment clinics, or simply their own broad medical expertise.

The phenomenon isn't new -- hospital marketing has been growing for most of the past decade, but experts say they've never seen it as prevalent as it is currently.

Columbia Hospital for Women in Washington, for instance, is running ads in such magazines as The Washingtonian, Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, House Beautiful, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens and Metropolitan Home. Greater Southeast Community Hospital is about to launch a major advertising campaign to "boost the image of the system in total," according to Bob Earnest, director of marketing for the hospital. And Providence Hospital, also in the District, is pitching its physician referral services and fertility and substance abuse clinics on TV, in print and through direct mail.

Local hospital officials say the advertising surge is the result of an increasingly competitive local health care market. With hospitals feeling pressure from the private sector and government medical plans to move patients out faster, health care facilities have turned to aggressive marketing techniques to fill empty beds.

"Advertising is here to stay," said K.C. Nolan, a health care consultant with Ernst and Whinney in Washington. "It's part of the evolution in the health care industry. ...

"Ten years ago, the industry competition was based on production and capacity," Nolan said. "Today, it's cost and service, and advertising is based on that."

But the flood of hospital advertising has raised questions, particularly about the issue of whether splashy "image" advertising campaigns are an effective use of a not-for-profit hospital's money.

Hospitals have for years engaged in more targeted, product-oriented advertising. Almost all area hospitals currently run campaigns aimed at promoting specific services and programs. But increasingly in the past few years, some hospitals have formulated expensive, multimedia campaigns aimed at promoting their overall institutional image.

A year ago, for example, the Medlantic Healthcare Group -- which runs the Washington Hospital Center, Capitol Hill Hospital and the Columbia Hospital for Women -- raised some eyebrows in the local health care community with a $1 million campaign promoting, among other things, the company's name change.

This year's big image campaign belongs to George Washington University Hospital. In a series of advertisements, the hospital stresses its scientific and academic connections, describing itself as a "center of research and learning."

LaRosa said market surveys conducted by the hospital found a "general lack of appreciation in this area for the distinction between academic medical centers and what they do and community hospitals. ... We found ourselves being lumped with all the other hospitals."

The current ad campaign is designed to change that. It is intended to point out that at a teaching hospital "the mission is quite difficult and almost intrinsically the level of care is quite different," LaRosa said.

LaRosa, who declined to discuss the cost of the advertising, said he won't know how effective the ads are in creating new business for the hospital until the campaign is completed. But he said the campaign's major justification lies in gaining more "external recognition" for the hospital -- which won national fame in 1981 when President Reagan was treated there after the attempt on his life by John Hinckley.

Earnest, who is about to introduce a similar, if somewhat smaller, campaign for Greater Southeast Community Hospital, believes his effort will pay off because it is aimed not at "the garden variety consumer or patient, but someone more at an influential manager level ... the kinds of people who have to do with paying for services."

Others aren't so sure. "Image advertising tends to make the institution feel good, but probably has a little bit less overall effect than other types," said Charles O'Brien, administrator at Georgetown Hospital -- which nevertheless does some image advertising of its own.

"It's like Procter and Gamble advertising Procter and Gamble," said Roberta Stewart, vice president of marketing and planning for Providence Hospital. She believes image ads are too broadly based to "get at the core of what a consumer is looking for. ...

"I don't think, for example, that a consumer thinks in terms of hospitals," Stewart said. "Nobody wants to go to a hospital. You use it only when you have a specific need that can't be taken care of anywhere else. So you have to let them know you have a program that meets their needs."

Providence Hospital no longer runs image advertising, Stewart said. Nor does the Fairfax Hospital System. "Because we're community based and not for profit, we think people have a pretty good image of what we do," said Lawrence Bachorik, director of public relations for the institution. "When we do advertise, we target a specific audience and monitor our expenditures closely and look for tangible results. We're not like some of the big health care systems that spend large amounts of dollars on that kind of advertising."

At the heart of the issue is the question of how much say a consumer actually has in choosing a hospital. According to some studies, the patient's physician makes that decision at least 75 percent of the time. Service-oriented hospital advertising usually focuses on the remaining 25 percent of hospital admissions that are elective, such as the areas of obstetrics and psychiatry.

Most hospital officials say such targeted campaigns can be highly effective. Columbia Hospital for Women runs only one ad a month for its center that treats incontinence because, according to Elizabeth McAllister, the hospital's assistant administrator for planning and marketing, "that's all we can handle. Otherwise it gets too crowded."

"Problems like depression and adolescent drugs are not typically things that people go to a doctor for first. They see that ad and they pick up the phone and call the hospital," said Anne Crowley, a Washington-based health care marketing consultant. "I do a lot of work for psychiatric hospitals tracking the effects of their advertising, and they can say the $10,000 they spent last month translated into so many thousand calls."

"You'll probably see less image advertising in the future as people get more sophisticated about marketing and about targeting their audience," O'Brien said. "There will be a more focused approach, and that may not necessarily translate into broad-gauged advertising."