Health Care Marketing’s Role in the Post-Pandemic Cleanup

Dear Health Care Marketer: we have our work cut out for us.  As we’ve been documenting, our health care consumers have changed since the pandemic. Some of that change is good: 36% of baby boomers report they feel confident using new technology—a 10% increase since 2020. As more health consumers use and leverage Smartphones, Smart TVs and TV streaming devices, we have better and more precise ability to connect with audiences.  STAT reports that more of our health audiences are engaged with their health like never before: including a better understanding of medical science and more ownership of their health. For example, during the pandemic, health app downloads increased 25%.  But not all that change is good.  Scientific American reports that a growing number of vaccinated people are experiencing “Cave Syndrome”: living in chronic social isolation and feeling afraid to return to their former lives. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 23% of women skipped a recommended medical test or treatment, and 38% of women missed preventive health services in 2020.  Many of us in health care are concerned about the heart disease, cancer and other disease conditions that went undiagnosed during the pandemic, and what that may mean for our hospitals and health care organizations in the years to come.  And let’s not forget: Americans weren’t healthy before the pandemic. Two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese. Approximately 45% of all Americans suffer from at least one chronic disease—and the number is growing.  Given the state of American health, we invited executive leaders representing a prominent, Connecticut-based health system and a California-based company providing post-acute care, primary care and care coordination for over 1 million people in the Los Angeles area to discuss how they’re approaching patient engagement on our 7/16/21 Campfire Chat.  Following are takeaways from our conversation. “A TRUE DISASTER RESPONSE” Dianne Auger, Regional Vice President, Strategy and Regional Development for Hartford HealthCare, put into words what all of us in health care have felt since the start of the pandemic: we’ve worked and lived through a disaster response effort. Thankfully, the largest part of the crisis is over. But that doesn’t mean our health care workers aren’t experiencing burnout and PTSD. How we address the needs of our health care workers next will have a direct impact on our ability to provide care for our patients and communities.  “TELEHEALTH IS HELPFUL, BUT NOT A SILVER BULLET” Tor Miller, Chief Marketing Officer for Titanium Healthcare, shared that her company provides services for patients who have five or more chronic disease conditions. Titanium, like other health care organizations, spun up telehealth services in the early days of the pandemic so it could see patients safely. But helping post-acute patients with chronic disease conditions through telehealth isn’t ideal. Telehealth has proven to be a helpful tool in caring for patients, but it can’t be the only tool moving forward. “CARING FOR THE PATIENTS WHO SLIP THROUGH THE CRACKS” Both Dianne and Tor noted that COVID-19 turned a spotlight on the health inequities among patient populations. Hartford HealthCare amplified its work to coordinate resources in the community, reaching those patients who may lack transportation for medical care. Titanium Healthcare’s model of care provides care coordinators who help patients with everything from access to food and even how to refrigerate medications for patients who have housing insecurities. As we get back to “normal,” I think we all can agree: let’s not turn our backs on those inequities and patients who slip through the cracks of our health care system.  “MOM: IT’S TIME YOU MADE YOURSELF A PRIORITY” Women, and mothers in particular, are hardwired to make their family’s health a priority over their own. The pandemic may have amplified this behavior, as data suggests a record number of women have put off their own health care to focus on keeping their family safe and healthy. While noble, we know that the adage of “putting on your oxygen mask before putting on somebody else’s” rings true. Women and men are showing up to the ER and doctor’s office with higher acuity needs—due to delaying their own care.  “WHY DOES HEALTH CARE HAVE TO BE SO COMPLICATED?” Tor, a native of England, shared her personal story of coming to the United States and having to learn about health insurance and what a “deductible” is. Many of us who have worked in the American health care system are so used to the complexity that we can forget how challenging it must be for our patients who are not health care “experts” to navigate the cumbersome system. As Chief Marketing Officer, Tor shared how she is redesigning the patient experience from the ground up—for example, how her care team answers the phone to redesigning and reimagining patient letters and communications materials to be simple, friendly, and accessible.  “LET’S DO OUR PART SO OUR PATIENTS CAN DO THEIR PART” Dianne shared what should be the playbook for health care marketing and communications strategies for patient audiences: keep it simple, keep it friendly, and help our patients to navigate their needs. She also reminded us that health care is a two-way street: providers can deliver outstanding care. But we need our patients to do their part: to come in for care, to follow medical orders, and to take care of their bodies.  FINAL THOUGHTS In the early days of COVID-19, Chris Boyer, digital health strategist and co-host of the touch point podcast, told me that the way he’s thinking about pre-COVID was as “Before Times,” and after COVID-19, “After Times.” I’d like to think (and hope) we’re in the “Post-Pandemic Cleanup” time. Though this disease is still in the air, my hope is that fewer and fewer people will be impacted by it. What we’re left with is the mess that follows any disaster: like the rubble after a hurricane has torn through a city. There are broken lives to mend and health maladies have gone untreated while people were hunkered down and weathering the pandemic storm.  As communicators, we can’t treat diseases and heal people. But we can connect with our health audiences, share with them ways that they can live healthier, and reduce the amount of barriers to access care.   The challenges before us are daunting. There’s important work to be done. But just look at what we accomplished and overcame during the pandemic. That should give all of us a sense of strength and confidence. 

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