Brand Building Post-COVID-19
There is no denying it. Hospitals across the country are in financial trouble. To help themselves recover, they need to restore patient volumes as quickly as possible. While reputation campaigns that drive loyalty and patient preference are more critical than ever, the ways to go about it in the post-COVID-19 landscape are drastically different.
Before we get into the solution, a level-set on the problem: people are so terrified of going to a hospital that they’re delaying care — even for life-threatening conditions. ReviveHealth survey data show more than a third of patients won’t feel comfortable returning to the hospital until three months after the restrictions lift. And the stories are even more shocking than the numbers — a recent New York Times article said transplant recipients are turning down organs when they become available, and cancer patients are refusing to come in for lab work.
There are many complex dynamics at play with this public health crisis, but as communicators, we need to examine how our fundamentals have changed.
Turning Marketing Principles on Their Head
COVID-19 has shaken everything up — including the marketing funnel. The notion that a loyal consumer is a brand’s most valuable customer is a no-brainer; however, in the current environment, that is not the case for health systems. In pre-pandemic times, the massive advocacy generated for front-line workers would translate to an increased volume of diagnostic tests and a renewed commitment to tackle chronic conditions.
Today, it’s the inverse. In addition to the statistics outlined above, experts claim up to 50% of the elective surgery backlog will not return, leaving many systems scrambling to fill the patient pipeline. And, none are spared. One example: according to the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, hospital revenues have seen a decline of 40% — seemingly illogical given how contained the pandemic was in the state.
Oregon had a relatively mild outbreak compared to other states. Some rural hospitals didn’t have a single COVID-19 patient.
Doctors, nurses, and other front-line workers were celebrated as heroes. But the positive PR did very little to attract new patients.
“People are delaying checkups and vital care because they fear hospitals are either unsafe or overwhelmed. Neither of those things are true here in Oregon,” said Becky Hultberg, president and CEO of the hospital trade group. (The Oregonian, June 4, 2020)
To add insult to injury, showing up as a leader during war times can hurt the recovery phase. Health systems that have taken a leadership position on COVID-19 research are now wondering how broadly to continue promoting this message, lest they become branded as a “COVID-19 hospital” in the minds of patients. Many of our clients — among the top innovators in research and clinical excellence — have sought counsel on how, where and with whom to gain visibility for this work. In other words, how can we build a strong national reputation using a totally different angle than our local one?
Adapting to Grow
These new dynamics require a health system’s marketing budget to accomplish significantly more than it has before. Reputation efforts must go beyond high-level affinity messages and have a call-to-action that’s closer to what one would see in service line campaigns — the need for revenue is that critical and the speed at which it comes is that urgent.
Within this strategy, there’s no magic bullet. While a brilliant ad, thoughtful article, or impactful influencer campaign won’t get all elective procedures back on the books, here are some ways marketers can make their efforts as impactful as they need to be.
- Caregivers can be first responders: During shelter-in-place, Zoom calls with family and friends are the new reality. These conversations are likely where concerns and thoughts such as “Is this normal?” surface first. Armed with information about the risks of delaying care, an adult child or spouse can be a powerful advocate for addressing potentially serious health issues. Patient communications can do double-duty — urging people to reschedule their own procedures and asking them to stay vigilant about their loved ones’ well-being. Clear information about what to expect when arriving at a hospital can also create reassurance and a source of comfort while mitigating any surprises related to restricted visitor policies that can damage the patient experience.
- Mental health is the new triage: While counseling won’t solely drive conversion, it can be a big help. For those on-the-fence about rescheduling elective procedures, an appointment focused on dismantling fear could help a patient make the right decision. This could be the new job of telehealth as call volume related to COVID-19 drops and we strive to make this a permanent part of care delivery. Mental health will also be a life-threatening condition for a staggering number of people. Research projects an additional 75,000 “deaths of despair” due to drug and alcohol abuse and suicide. For health systems with differentiated support programs and psychiatric offerings, this is an opportunity that could produce a downstream return.
- Personalized messaging can make all the difference: Within every market, there are a number of patient segments that can be mapped by demographic or psychographic in the post-COVID-19 environment. Each requires nuanced messaging and engagement for their marketing efforts to be fully effective. Diverse communities with large populations of African Americans and Hispanics should be aware of the unique reticence to visit a hospital, given the above-average mortality rates observed during the pandemic. Hospitals in need of reputational repair — from disputes with nurses that have turned into lawsuits to jarring Instagram images of pop-up morgues — can target messages and instill confidence into the minds of distrusting and anxiety-riddled consumers. Pulling through COVID-19-specific patient insights will make the CRM program work its hardest, create the most authentic connections, and deliver the most return.
- Stories from the other side of treatment are critical: Every hospital is embracing the “don’t delay care” message, but that only acknowledges half of the story. To truly resonate with patients in a way that spurs action, we must tell the stories of the people who overcame anxiety and sought care. The woman who got the mastectomy, the person with diabetes who saw an upward trend in their fasting glucose and went to their endo, the guy who could no longer ignore the pain and booked his hip surgery. Bringing to life these successful, safe experiences visualizes the quality of life improvement and peace-of-mind that a person has when good health is restored.
- Advocacy organizations can be allies: Beyond the CDC, there are numerous trusted, condition-specific voices that can influence patient outreach. For example, in an effort to address the dangerous impacts of COVID-19 on people with heart disease — data show admissions for a serious type of heart attack decreased by 38% after March 1 — the American Heart Association launched the Don’t Die of Doubt initiative. The campaign’s message is consistent with and complementary to every health system: “hospitals are still the safest place for you to be when medical emergencies strike.” The same guidance is echoed by organizations like the American Diabetes Association and Stand Up to Cancer. Beyond simply incorporating the content into communications, potential collaborations include working with local chapters with connections in the community, celebrating the return to research, and recruiting for clinical trials as hospitals re-open in phases.
These recommendations aren’t rocket science, nor do they call for a 180° shift. It’s about meaningful pivots to acknowledge the consumer mindset and meet them where they are. The systems that prove to patients that they “get it” will be rewarded — both with a reputation lift and financial recovery.