COVID Brain: What to Know When Marketing to Patient Consumers

“COVID Brain.” Do the recent digital privacy updates mean the end of digital marketing as we know it? Should hospitals see Walmart as their next—and perhaps greatest—fiscal threat? These were just a few topics I asked our panel of health care marketing industry experts on our June 18th, 2021 Campfire. Special thanks to Rob Klein of Klein + Partners, James Gardner, and Colin Hung for joining the “hot seat” for our Ask the Experts Campfire! Read below for highlights or watch the replay video. And sign up below to get notified of our next webinars: conversational, insightful and sometimes just plain light-hearted—because health care communicators need to laugh sometimes. COVID BRAIN: WHAT TO REMEMBER WHEN MARKETING TO PATIENT CONSUMERS “When it comes to consumer health care marketing, we have to remember we’re talking to people with ‘COVID Brain.’” That was how Rob Klein, health care branding researcher, began his remarks at our Campfire roundtable with industry experts. COVID Brain, as Rob explained it, is what happens when our cognitive skills are impaired due to fear and chronic stress. (Umm, this might have something to do with living in a pandemic.)  Marketing and communicating health care to consumer audiences has always been a worthy challenge. After all, marketers are often tasked with communicating services that our audiences might not need for years (like cardiology care) or want to think about (like cancer care).  Fear is a motivator for action. (Like smelling smoke in your house and exiting pronto.) But too much fear? Or worse yet: chronic, ongoing fear, (like what we’ve experienced for over a year since COVID-19), can stunt people from taking healthy actions like:
  • Rescheduling the mammogram that was delayed due to COVID-19. 
  • Talking with a doctor about strange aches and shortness of breath.
  • Admitting their health challenges are greater than they can manage on their own. 
Rob recommends encouraging your physicians to exhibit “Empathetic Access”: active listening and engagement with patients. Prior to the pandemic, consumers complained about “doorjamb doctors”: physicians who practically stood in the doorway of the exam room as the patient tried to remember all the things to ask during the appointment.  Now, that need for human connection among consumers with physicians is only greater: especially as many of us still have knock-on effects due to “COVID brain.”  Maybe you’re not in a position to counsel physicians on how to care for patients. Maybe you can’t immediately change the industry average 18-minute patient exam. But how can you enlighten your doctors, nurses and other care team members about what patients are thinking, feeling and craving right now?  As health care marketing communications professionals, our jobs are most often in service of representing the voice of the patient. How might you illuminate how your health system’s patients are doing these days to inspire better engagement and shared understanding? BONUS TIP: GET THIS BOOK: Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance In this book, Erica Dhawan, a go-to thought leader on collaboration and a passionate communication junkie, combines cutting edge research with engaging storytelling to decode the new signals and cues that have replaced traditional body language across genders, generations and cultures.  APPLE AND GOOGLE TO MARKETERS: WE HOPE YOU LIKE RADICAL CHANGE During the Campfire, Colin Hung referenced a recent article he wrote on HITMC about Apple’s recent changes to their email privacy features.  And it’s kind of a big deal. The gist? Apple’s new email privacy features will effectively end tracking of opens, forwards, location and IP addresses. This means no more A/B testing of subject lines, knowing if your email was forwarded to someone else or which organization the recipient works for.  Doesn’t sound like a big deal to you? Consider this: 51.8% of all emails are opened using an Apple device. If half of our potential audience is leveraging Apple’s new privacy settings, then marketing’s traditional “bread and butter” metrics—like email open rates—are a thing of the past.  Colin—a glass half full kind of person—is hopeful that Apple’s changes, along with Google’s recent news that it will end third-party cookies in Chrome (and potentially drive to extinction 3rd party cookie-based retargeting)—will encourage health care marketers to imagine better, more meaningful metrics and KPIs.  What are the potential “upsides” of Apple’s and Google’s news for health care marketers? Well, to start with the obvious first principle: increase your emphasis on creating great content: the stuff that benefits your audience, which they want to consume, share and take action on. Next up: iterate and innovate. As of this writing, we are 193 days from going “cookieless.” Pull the team together and figure out how to reimagine your KPIs in a cookie-less world. How robust are your first-party data practices? What new data points and insights can you leverage to help shape your future digital marketing campaigns? This might seem like a big assignment. But then again, remember you survived a pandemic. It’s all downhill from here.  HEALTH CARE MARKETERS: WE SHOULD TALK ABOUT THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM James Gardner has become the media’s thought leader on all things Retail Health. During the Hailey Sault Campfire, James talked about Walmart’s launch of Walmart Health, a doctor-run clinic offering services like X-rays, annual checkups and dental exams.  CVS, Walgreens and Amazon have all staked inroads into health care. And why not? Health care is a $3.6 trillion industry and consumers have long complained understandably about rising health care costs. Don’t think your local hospital or health system doesn’t have to put the big box retailers in its competitive set?  I would caution against that.  As Rob Klein pointed out during the Campfire: “Retail figured out health care faster than health care figured out retail.” And, as James Gardner reminded us: “Walmart never loses.” So what does this mean for you and your organization? (Provided you’re not currently working for Walmart, Amazon, CVS or Walgreens?)
  • Increased focus on consumer loyalty: in any given year, approximately 30% of your patients are thinking about switching providers. The retail health movement will peel off those patients. How can you re-engage your patients to remain loyal and connected with your brand?
  • And don’t think it’s just primary care visits and medication refills you risk losing to the retail health giants. Walmart has a long history of guiding its employed workforce to receive specialty care that it identifies as high quality and at the best possible cost. Why wouldn’t Walmart encourage its primary care patients to seek joint replacement services at the hospitals and orthopedic clinics that it deems best for its patients for both quality and price? (After all, those cost savings back to the consumer are likely to be spent at their local Walmart.)
  • Increased focus on physician loyalty: According to a survey at the end of 2020, nearly half of doctors are rethinking their careers, in large part due to COVID-19 and its impact on the health care system. How can you re-engage your physicians? (Remember: Walmart needs good doctors to staff its clinics.)
BONUS RESOURCE Here’s a short video from CNBC featuring James on the Retail Health movement. FINAL THOUGHTS We’ve all come through this pandemic a bit tired, sleep-deprived, and having our fair share of “COVID Brain.” It’s a good time to check in with our marketing strategies and plans to ask if we’re running a 2019 strategy or a 2021 strategy. Because everything changed in 2020. Some good change, a lot of not so good change. But nonetheless: change. And to win the hearts and minds of our consumers, we need to keep changing as an industry.  Do you like learning new things and connecting with fun, smart people? Then you should sign up to be notified of our next Hailey Sault Campfire webinars: they’re lively video conversations without the boring bullet point slides. Sign up below to be notified of the next Campfire and get early access to our latest thinking and strategies on how to create human connections with health care marketing. 

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