Why hospitals need strong digital front doors: 7 execs weigh in

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A hospital's digital front door is an essential part of its strategy to engage patients throughout each point of their healthcare journey using technology they have already integrated into their everyday lives.

Below, seven executives from hospitals and health systems across the country discuss the importance of their organization's digital front door and what strategies went into the building of their websites.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and style.

Nick Ragone, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, Ascension (St. Louis): As a unified consumer brand, Ascension is delivering on our promise of compassionate, personalized care, as well as on a promise of access, availability and navigation of care. We are doing that by proactively bringing our care to meet the consumer when and where they need us. By optimizing our online search strategy, investing in search marketing and social media marketing, and leveraging Google listings, we are reaching consumers where they are looking for symptoms, services, locations and providers and creating the shortest distance into scheduling. 

We are bringing care to our patients' front door, rather than the other way around, through personalized engagement that offers convenient access, availability of appointments and help navigating scheduling. Strategic and search-optimized content on the website supports that consumer experience and helps patients, consumers and providers make more informed choices and connect the dots across all Ascension sites and services.   

Kevan Mabbutt, senior vice president and chief consumer officer, Intermountain Healthcare (Salt Lake City): Healthcare has the same consumers as hospitality, retail, big tech, entertainment, travel and other industries, and yet the industry does not typically provide a comparable experience. This may have been tolerated by consumers in the past, but things are changing fast. The industry needs to connect the dots between digital and non-digital parts of the healthcare journey to create a seamless and consistent experience from end to end.

We began work on Intermountain Healthcare’s digital front door about a year before COVID, and launched our digital front door (the My Health+ web and app experience) in the midst of the pandemic. At launch, we focused heavily on needs most relevant during the pandemic — symptom checking, finding appropriate care, booking appointments, getting test results, etc. — that could all now be met from the palm of your hand in the safety of your home. The pandemic has helped drive rapid innovation. For example, we developed and launched a standalone online COVID symptom checker within weeks (prior to the launch of our digital front door) and helped triage hundreds of thousands of people to take the right next steps.

The digital front door needs to do two main things: (1) anticipate and meet the needs of our patients, members, and caregivers, and (2) do this in a way that matches the best digital experiences anywhere (not just in healthcare). Our digital front door (My Health+) does this by: (1) addressing the biggest consumer pain points in healthcare, and (2) providing an intuitive app experience designed around the consumer and not our organizational structure. The major pain points are all about finding, managing, and paying for care — the three core modules of My Health+. 

When it comes to execution, we look at the best digital experiences outside of healthcare to inspire how My Health+ addresses those pain points. We have built our digital front door as a platform that enables us to swap tools in and out as technology evolves — and to expand its scope to include wellness, patient education, remote monitoring, and a host of other tools in future. It is a living thing; we cannot stand still and declare the digital front door “finished.” It is key to how we stay relevant to consumers in an increasingly competitive and complex healthcare environment.

My Health+ has acquired around 404,000 users since its launch last summer. Not only have we scaled more quickly than we anticipated, our users are spending far longer with the app and engaging more than they did on our legacy patient portal. They are using the dozens of tools seamlessly integrated into My Health+ and they rate the experience 3x as highly as the legacy portal in the app stores. We have a lot more work to do measuring and increasing the value to our consumers, but we have made a solid start.

Suzanne Bharati Hendery, chief marketing and customer officer, Renown Health (Reno, Nev.): Whether you come through Renown’s actual front door or our virtual front door, we grow and protect our brand experience by applying the following strategies to our website: we deepen preference by aligning all properties to support each other for one unified customer experience; drive our fan base through syndicated content, social media interactions and engagement; nurture and embolden fans to interact with one another through personal testimonials and storytelling; speed up and simplify transactions; and demonstrate how Renown’s care and coverage adds value to our customers and community.

Morgan Griffith, vice president of digital strategy and transformation, Bon Secours Mercy Health (Cincinnati): Even before our world changed as a result of COVID-19, Bon Secours Mercy Health recognized the need for a seamless and consumer-centric digital front door as critically important in improving access, particularly for the consumers and patients across our footprint who are digitally intense. When we couple growing consumer expectations of convenience with the inherent need for digital access brought on by COVID-19, our digital front door is essential in helping make health care easier, more convenient and more accessible for those we serve.

As we strategically prioritize and develop the components of our digital footprint, we keep our focus on our patients and consumers. Our ever-evolving roadmap spans channels much more broadly than just our website. We’ve developed a consumer-facing mobile that app that takes all of our standard patient portal functionality, and brings it together with features that meet expanded needs – on-demand video visits, communication management, direct-from-app navigation, content libraries filled with resources related to health and tools to find a provider and location with ease — and sort and filter those results based on convenience drivers — to name just a few.

We’re leveraging digital technology to connect the dots and create a true 360-degree view of our patients and consumers, so we can personalize and enhance every step of their experience. As we iterate and expand our digital front door capabilities, we continue to keep our lens closely focused on the consumer and their evolving needs.

Brad Fixler, vice president of marketing, UCHealth (Aurora, Colo.): The digital front door isn't just important, it's critical. It's a primary method of how people conduct research, determine where to receive care and schedule appointments with the provider best suited for them. We know that if we don't have a well-maintained presence on the first page of Google with accurate and easy-to-understand information, people will go elsewhere.

Consumer behavior is constantly evolving and so must our website and digital platforms. Our goal is to anticipate the expectations of our patients so we can proactively improve the website and digital experience to provide the seamless, frictionless experience they expect yet many times is lacking in the healthcare space relative to other industries.

Jennifer Gilkie, vice president of communications and marketing, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (Lebanon, N.H.): In a time when people are leaning on technology more than ever to stay connected and informed, the digital front door to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health is an absolute priority. We want our digital presence, whether accessed through a mobile device or traditional entry point, to be a one-stop shop for our patients, prospective patients, employees, and the community at large — and we know that our digital front door is always open. And the entry through that door while self-directed by the user, should be strategically and innovatively guided by what we have designed for the user to encounter. 

An effective digital presence allows us to provide accessible, easy to navigate information. We want patients and prospective patients to easily find provider information, and to choose to select our system for their care. We want them to seamlessly digest and understand what they discover. Of course, during this time of the pandemic the top item on our website reads, “When can I get my COVID-19 vaccine?” because we know that's the question at the top of everyone's minds these days. Our main page also clearly links to other important resources related to COVID-19. 

And we are continuing to grow our digital front door – through implementation of our telehealth platforms, especially relevant for consumers who are worried about in-person care, or for those who have a need for quick urgent care. As we move beyond COVID, D-HH will continue to build out digital resources — they need to keep up with the pace of innovative technology happening in the world beyond healthcare so that our communities can easily experience high-quality care seamlessly in the way they choose. 

Sara Saldoff, director of digital marketing and customer experience, OhioHealth (Columbus): At OhioHealth, our digital front door is a critical welcome mat for our omnichannel experiences and an increasingly important way in which we deliver care virtually. The ease of use through that digital front door helps us meet our patients, clinicians and consumers where they are, whether for wellness or on-going care. It also raises the bar to access care while driving down the costs associated with it. 

While our website is critical to our overall strategy, it doesn’t stop there. We take a holistic approach to understand how all our owned and paid channels work in concert with one another to support the overall experience. We build our digital experiences from a human-centered perspective by, first, utilizing our User Experience team to ask what users need. And then work with our clinical and operations partners to create the best experience possible, while also delivering value to the organization.

It’s all part of OhioHealth’s goals to make healthcare, simple, affordable and accessible.

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