Humanizing healthcare experience: Lessons from University of Iowa Health Care's journey to the top

In the just-released Humanizing Brand Experience Vol. 7 report from Monigle, healthcare leaders gain access to a groundbreaking study that redefines the way we understand and deliver human-centric experiences. Informed by 26,000 consumers, this report deep dives into the key drivers of consumer choice and advocacy in healthcare, ranking more than 200 healthcare brands on the attributes most important to consumers.

Iowa City, Iowa-based University of Iowa Health Care, the No. 1 ranked brand, has cracked the code on creating a healthcare experience that truly puts people first. Kim Hofland, senior director of healthcare engagement at Monigle, and Dave Middendorf, executive director of health, care and wellness at Monigle, sat down with Katie Cunningham, director of brand strategy at University of Iowa Health Care, for a conversation about the strategies, philosophies, and insights that have propelled their organization to the forefront of humanized healthcare experiences.

Question: Congratulations on your No. 1 ranking. What do you think was the driver of this success and how does it align with your overall brand strategy?

Katie Cunningham: I think a lot of this has to do with our people, our staff and faculty. We've done extensive research over the last year, both internally and externally, and it is really striking how deeply our employees care about patients and the health of the people in Iowa. This idea of putting people first and being here to care for Iowans is firmly embedded in our brand strategy, in what we do, and how we talk about ourselves.

Q: How does University of Iowa Health Care recruit and develop such a robust group of dedicated people?

KC: Our employees often say that at University of Iowa Health Care, every patient has their person. It's a concept that really captures what makes the experience here so special. When people come to us, it's often during one of the most difficult times in their lives. But they quickly find that they have a dedicated team rallying around them, and in particular, one person they deeply connect with who becomes their go-to support. That's the kind of experience patients can expect here — to always have someone in their corner through the challenges they're facing.

This culture of dedication and commitment to patient care is at the core of who we are as an organization. There's a huge amount of pride in being part of an organization that cares for Iowans. That's who we are. But there's also a level of pride among the people of the state that we are here, able to do what we do for them.

Q: Making people feel like they're not alone in their health journey is a strength of your brand and reflects the theme of human connection. How do you promote a sense of belonging and emotional support for your patients, and how do you extend this beyond clinical interactions?

KC: Our employees understand that many people come to us when something's wrong — they're scared and facing a lot of uncertainty. Conveying to patients that we're here and we've got their back is an important part of what we do and how our staff connects with them.

We're trusted in a way that stands out, especially at a time when trust in healthcare organizations is eroding. Iowans put so much trust in us, which we consistently see in our research. There is a big difference in how we are viewed as an organization.

Q: Do you have systems and people in place that allow that trust to be maintained?

KC: We have been a constant for the people of Iowa for over 150 years. That longevity matters. During the pandemic, for example, we were a resource and source of information not just for our patients, but for other healthcare professionals and Iowans looking for guidance on staying safe. Being able to step in as that trusted resource is something we continue to do.

Q: The report emphasizes the benefits of "systemness," which is something new to your brand, as you've evolved from an academic medical center into a health system, especially with the addition of the acquired downtown hospital. As a top performer in care coordination, how do you ensure seamless experiences across your facilities and clinicians? What role does your brand play in communicating this value?

KC: This has been a key topic for us from a brand perspective — wherever people see our name, they expect the same level of care and services at that facility that they associate with University of Iowa Health Care overall.

We've put a lot of thought into what that looks like and how it feels. As marketers and brand advocates, we have an opportunity to be the voice for patients in these conversations. We may offer different services in different places, and that's okay. The focus is on ensuring the best possible service across the board, so that everyone has a true University of Iowa Health Care experience.

It's a bit new for our organization as we have evolved into a system, and sometimes we have to pause and think about how to make it work. But it's been a major topic of discussion as we've been on this journey.

Q: It sounds like close collaboration between your brand team, marketing, and care delivery is crucial. How do you foster a positive and collaborative dynamic?

KC: I think it's about all of us working towards the same goal. We're on the same side of the table. Many of the insights we bring can help shape operational approaches.

For instance, as we build a new hospital that will include, among other things, a focus on orthopedics care, research, and education, we've done a lot of research on what orthopedics patients want and need. Some of those findings we can implement from a marketing perspective, but a lot of it informs how we set up patient flow, service allocation, and helping patients recover function quickly.

Those are operational issues where we can bring insights to the table and work with our clinical partners to develop workflows that support the patient experience. Our orthopedics department has been fantastic in their dedication to creating a positive patient journey, and it's exciting to see.

Q: We know that you’ve recently implemented the initial stages of a rebrand, are there any key lessons learned from the rebranding process?

KC: The amount of planning and thought that went into the rebrand was immense, when you consider all the elements that are touched by a healthcare system's brand. There are so many legal and compliance components to align, like ensuring the name on the door matches the name on the bill.

We had 40 to 50 people across different work groups looking at everything from uniforms and fleet vehicles to badges.

The level of interdisciplinary collaboration was huge, and we uncovered a lot of opportunities to improve processes along the way. A big focus now is on documenting these processes and making sure that the next time this happens, we're leaving things better than we found them. The coordination, planning, and logistics involved were significant.

Q: The report notes that Gen Z is an emerging healthcare consumer segment with distinct attitudes, behaviors and expectations. How are you tailoring your brand experience to resonate with them? What unique challenges and opportunities do you see?

KC: It's an interesting question, because Gen Z is younger and has fewer healthcare needs at the moment. Figuring out how to establish relationships with younger people who don't need as much care now, but will in the future, is an ongoing conversation in healthcare.

I think we have a bit of an advantage in being known for our Children's Hospital and the pediatric care we provide. Our connection to the university is also a way we can build a presence with younger audiences who may not be focused on health care at this time.

Beyond that, it's about considering how we can be a trusted resource for people even if they don't have an immediate need to come to us for care. How can we be there for them and offer support? That's something we're always looking at and trying to navigate.

Q: Last time we spoke, you mentioned the wave tradition. Could you share that story again for us to include here?

KC: Of course. University of Iowa Health Care Stead Family Children's Hospital is right next to the University of Iowa football stadium. From the top floors, you can see right into the stadium. On game days, some of our pediatric patients and their families will go up to the 12th floor to watch.

After the Children's Hospital was built, a new tradition emerged where at the end of the first quarter of every game, the entire stadium turns and waves to the kids. It gets a lot of attention on TV. We also have a Kid Captain Program, where a child who was previously a patient gets to be an honorary captain for the game. They get to pick the song that plays during the wave, go out on the field, the whole experience. Hundreds of kids apply every year. It's a real challenge to select just one for each game.

The wave has become a fundamental part of who we are and our relationship with athletics and the university.

Q: Looking ahead, what are your top priorities for continuing to advance the humanization of healthcare experiences, and how do you plan to stay ahead of evolving consumer expectations? 

KC: We've launched a new brand identity and we're evolving as an organization. We're opening a new hospital in 2025 and recently acquired another that we're in the process of integrating. As patient needs change, we're changing how we deliver care in response.

Like many organizations, access remains a challenge. We want to be there for Iowans who need care, no matter who they are or where they live. That's a priority for us.

From a humanization standpoint, a lot of it comes down to people and partnership. It's about engaging with people through their individual healthcare journeys and learning how we can support them even if they never physically come to us for care.

We feel a deep responsibility to be there for Iowans, and we need to find ways to do that beyond just driving volume and the things marketing typically focuses on. That's what we're really trying to figure out.

We're in a unique position because of the trust people place in us, and we want to operate in a way that maintains and earns that trust. 

University of Iowa Health Care’s unwavering commitment to putting people at the heart of every interaction serves as a beacon for organizations striving to create more meaningful, impactful, and trusted healthcare experiences. By embracing a culture of empathy, trust, and partnership, they have redefined what it means to deliver truly human-centric care. 

As the healthcare industry continues to evolve, organizations that prioritize human connections and adapt to the changing landscape while maintaining their own authentic identities will emerge as the leaders in delivering exceptional healthcare experiences.

Copyright © 2024 Becker's Healthcare. All Rights Reserved. Privacy Policy. Cookie Policy. Linking and Reprinting Policy.


Featured Whitepapers

Featured Webinars