How COVID-19 is changing hospitals' marketing strategies

Hospitals and health systems are adjusting their messaging to patients and the public as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves. 

For many organizations, messaging is focused on safety and stories about their workers. 

Here, hospital and health system professionals share with Becker's Hospital Review how their marketing and communications strategies have changed.

Kelly Jo Golson. chief marketing officer of Advocate Aurora Health (Milwaukee and Downers Grove, Ill.): One step we've taken with our marketing dollars is to turn them to education. We've sought to develop practical, informative content that is driven by the needs, questions and fears of the consumers and communities we serve. Our consumer insights team frequently engages in listening tours and input sessions to truly understand where the gaps are and how we can fill them.       

We're increasingly focusing on our safe care promise, outlining the many steps we're taking to protect our consumers and team members. That includes virtual check-ins, screening at all our locations, universal masking, social distancing through rearranged waiting areas and staggered appointment times, and enhanced cleaning, especially for high-touch spaces. There are countless stories of people  delaying urgent or necessary follow-up care, and it's having a negative impact on their health and well-being. We really want to offer some reassurance and get that message to folks that it's safe to come back to our campuses when they’re in need.             

Early on in this pandemic, we moved quickly to run what was actually more of a public service announcement focused on stopping the spread of COVID, providing sources for accurate information and sharing resources with our communities about when and how to access care. We've also worked to develop culturally relevant messaging that aims to engage communities of color and raise awareness about the need to build health equity, expand access to care and improve health outcomes in all our communities.

Another priority for us is to recognize our team members and heroes on the front lines — nurses, physicians, environmental services, food services and all those in critical roles. We really want to tell the stories of these individuals that run to the danger and put their own selves at risk. We have an ongoing commitment to raise up these stories and to rally around and support our team members. Since early March, we've sought to capture these hero stories and even created a TV spot that features several of our own team members.       

We're complementing TV and digital spots with many other efforts to tell our story, paid and organic, whether through email marketing, social media, earned media, participation in community forums, or through our own health and wellness brand journalism site, Health eNews.

Ted Keegan, chief marketing officer for University Hospitals health system (Cleveland): In an environment where people are no longer able to meet face-to-face, human connections become more important than ever. One of the steps we have taken is to  repurpose our University Hospitals news studio and leverage the talents of our staff to produce high-quality, high-value webinars reaching a wide range of stakeholders, including our UH caregivers, board members, donors, local businesses and nonprofits, first responders, government officials and families. 

The interest and participation have been remarkable. We've learned how to reach more people faster with targeted information and interactions, while showcasing the depth of clinical expertise within our health system. The webinars have created additional content for our web and social media channels and helped boost views and engagements on these platforms. Although we had always employed some virtual meeting capabilities, we expect it will be a larger element of our marketing communications strategy for the foreseeable future as everyone adapts to how COVID has changed the ways we learn and collaborate.

Mark Klein, senior vice president of corporate communications and public affairs for CommonSpirit Health (Chicago): Communicating with the patients and communities served by CommonSpirit Health has been critical in so many ways during the COVID-19 pandemic. We had to quickly raise awareness about the health risks of the virus and ways to reduce its spread. We rapidly developed new tools, such as online screenings, which we encouraged patients to use in advance. And as we launched entirely new ways to engage with our patients, including virtual visits, this outreach to patients became more important than ever. Equally important was employee engagement as we implemented new safety protocols, trained employees about the correct use of personal protective equipment, and launched a range of support programs. Communicating with our patients and our staff will continue to be a significant priority in the months ahead. In particular, one of our most important jobs is to reassure patients that it is safe to get essential care at our clinics, urgent care centers and hospitals. This has been a challenging time for all of our people, so we made sure that we supported them with additional information, reminders to take care of themselves and follow CDC guidelines both on and off duty. 

Lee Landau, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Jefferson Health (Philadelphia): At Jefferson Health, we recognize that safety is the No. 1 priority not only for health systems but also for any business during the pandemic. We've made The Numbers Tell Our Story the theme for our summer advertising campaign, which prioritizes our safety efforts. For more than 120 days, 25,000 Jefferson Health professionals and support staff have been working tirelessly to fight COVID-19. Despite having treated more COVID-19 patients than any other system in the Philadelphia area, we have been very successful in protecting our staff. Only about 1 percent of our employees have tested positive. These numbers tell our story: that in addition to providing care during the pandemic, we have delivered it safely, and as a result, our patients and staff have remained safe. What may not be safe is putting off care out of fear. We think our patients should resume their care with Jefferson because of our unwavering commitment to safety. The campaign's message to the public could not be clearer: "We're safe so you're safe."

Nick Ragone, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Ascension (St. Louis): Marketing and communications have taken on even greater importance during the COVID pandemic and will likely remain that way well into recovery as we work to reassure our patients and the public about the steps we're taking to keep them safe. We are communicating across all channels — traditional marketing and advertising, public relations, email and personal letters, social and digital engagement, executive visibility, grassroots outreach and video content — to inform patients and the public about our safety precautions, express gratitude for our caregivers and caregivers everywhere, remind consumers not to delay care and let them know what they can expect to experience at an Ascension physician office, hospital, urgent care or other care site. Earning and sustaining consumer trust over the next year or two is going to be critical for every health system, and marketing and communications will play an important role in creating a dialogue and relationship with patients and the public. 

Dan Regan, vice president of communications, public relations and marketing for Sinai Health System (Chicago): When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March and April, hospitals and health systems nationwide postponed nonessential procedures and services to conserve resources for the care of COVID-19 patients in accordance with recommendations from both the Centers for Disease Control and local public health departments. As we begin to resume elective and nonemergency procedures, our marketing and communications strategy is focused on engagement with current and prospective patients to increase awareness about our service lines with strong messages about proactive health and safety.

In the wake of COVID, our priority is to make people in our communities feel comfortable and confident about coming back to our hospitals and clinic locations — in terms of safety and protection against the virus, and in terms of personal attention to their health needs. We were already in the process of revamping our system branding, which has taken on even greater importance in this new environment.

We are focused on strategies that don't just expand our reach, but really enhance our level of engagement with the people we serve. We are expanding our capabilities to utilize varied channels to reach our communities through telehealth appointments, targeted mobile-messaging platforms and useful social media content across varied platforms, including Facebook as well as Twitter, Instagram and others. We have a new website in development that will be a vanguard for our new branding and an improved gateway and resource for our patients and visitors.

Anne Robertson, assistant vice president of marketing and communications at Intermountain Healthcare (Salt Lake City): While Intermountain Healthcare has always had a focus on community health, with COVID-19, our marketing messaging took on an even stronger focus on prevention, testing and treatment of COVID-19. We pivoted much of our digital advertising to direct the public to a free COVID-19 symptom checker that has provided guidance to more than 200,000 unique users. 

Intermountain quickly spooled up our already robust telehealth program to provide a COVID-19 community information line, a free emotional support hotline, and a platform for non-COVID virtual patient visits. Our telehealth visits increased from 7,000 in March to 63,000 in April. We used traditional advertising, earned media and social media to help direct symptomatic individuals to one of 25 drive-thru testing locations in Utah and Idaho. We introduced a digital health tool, My Health Plus, that among other benefits of finding, managing, and paying for care also provides faster results reporting to those tested. 

Lastly, we initiated a multichannel campaign to assure the general public that our 24 hospitals and 215 clinics were available to care for them during the pandemic.

Julie Washington, senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer of Trinity Health (Livonia, Mich.): Overall, our focus at Trinity Health remains on the people we serve. Our mission is to be a transforming and healing presence within our communities, and we have shifted our marketing and communications strategies to reflect the dynamics of the pandemic. For example: 

  • The safety of our colleagues and the people we serve, as always, is a top priority. Consumer listening has highlighted concerns relating to safety and cleanliness, so our messaging has shifted to emphasize those areas. Safety also continues to be a priority for internal communications with our colleagues.
  • Consumers also are turning more frequently to our web channels for advice and engagement on many different topics, including symptom checking, visitor policies, appointment reschedulingand giving back through donations.
  • As more people stay at home, we are increasing outreach for and usage of telehealth and other virtual care platforms.
  • Digital channels such as email and social media are even more prominent as we reach and connect with patients and consumers. Our reach and engagement levels have increased significantly.
  • Our national incident command team leads the way for our operational readiness, and our communications reflect the changing management needs of our national ministry  —  including a website to keep colleagues apprised of  updates on practices and protocols.
  • We are seeing a growing appetite, internally and in the media, for stories we publish about patients and colleagues affected by COVID-19 and how the unified resources of Trinity Health enable high-quality care nationally.
  • Increasing advocacy-related messages are critical as we help influencers understand the effects of the pandemic on our industry.
  • We also continue to recognize and share gratitude for colleagues, especially those on the front lines. This includes local and national placement of stories about those who continue to go above and beyond to serve our communities.

As we increase readership and engagement on digital channels, we are using more data to drive our strategy and determine how best to allocate resources.



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