COVID-19 Pushes Us to Communicate Broadly with our Community

by Jeff Fisher, Friday, March 20, 2020

We can leverage these techniques to bring awareness to patient engagement initiatives.

Healthcare remains a community-based endeavor.

In response to COVID-19 provider organizations are pressed to find ways to communicate broadly to members of their community regarding important mitigation strategies such as procedures for hospital entry for those with fever or respiratory symptoms.  For lack of a better method, health systems typically post these notifications on their corporate websites.  Within the last couple of days even we’ve seen some vendors pushing branded iPhone/Android apps to communicate such information. 

The catch-22 here is easy to spot.  What’s the likelihood patients and visitors will come across this important information before heading out to the hospital?  Providers haven’t even been successful driving branded app adoption under normal circumstances and with the support of carefully executed marketing campaigns.  Is it reasonable to think patients facing a potentially life-threatening illness are going to take the time to download an app or proactively seek out information on the provider’s website to learn of hospital-specific policies and procedures that have been put in place within the last few days?

Health is a product of choice, but care is a product of circumstance.

For most of us, our local hospital serves as the site of seldom encountered life-changing events.  Like the Fire Department, we expect our hospitals to be there for us when we need them, but between visits they’re “out of sight, out of mind.”  That’s because the “care” part of healthcare is still very much encounter-based and typically not something with which we willingly choose to engage.  Everyday hobbies like travel or reading result in us establishing close relationships with vendors like Expedia and Amazon.  We choose to download their apps, opt into their communications and give them a fair amount of our highly sought after time and attention.  In contrast, those actively seeking to engage with acute care are only those that must.  The hospital only commands an active relationship with us during the care episode, after which, we just want to move on with our lives and typically forget what just happened.   

Given this, we can easily see why it’s been challenging for providers to bring patient engagement initiatives fully to fruition.  Because of healthcare’s episodic nature, community members do not listen to “hospital radio” so health systems have no way to simply and routinely bring awareness to and drive adoption for their patient engagement initiatives.  

There has been some progress in delivering tools of convenience such as patient portals offering test results, patient access applications offering online appointment scheduling, and telehealth as a means of serving more patients faster without person-to-person contact.  But these are pull, not push, channels.  Consumers call upon these tools when needed, but they do not command a persistence in our lives the way social media, news feeds, and selective retail channels do.  While push channels may exist for the tiny percentage of patients selectively invited to use technology to help manage chronic conditions, no patient engagement feature or innovation has emerged with broad appeal to attract the masses to “subscribe.” 

Case-in-point, a client of ours is rightfully quite proud of their achievement to drive adoption for their branded app to north of 38,000 downloads.  This sounds impressive and relatively speaking is significant.  Considering, however, there are over 1 million people in the health system’s catchment area, a maximum of only 3% of community members would be reachable via push notifications through the app (assuming they all opted into such notifications).  While the lack of a simple, repeatable, and affordable channel for promoting adoption is stunting patient engagement, it’s downright dangerous when one considers the need to disseminate important information in times of public health crises.  This is becoming painfully evident in light of the COVID-19 crisis where the stakes for community awareness are much higher. 

So, what’s the answer?  Short of running PSAs on local TV, radio, or billboards, is there a way for provider organizations to reach their community with important messaging as they need it — especially in times of crisis, but also to bring greater awareness and adoption for patient engagement initiatives?

Awareness and Adoption is a deliverable.

There’s no silver bullet for disseminating information to all community members in their homes, places of work or their cars.  Again, care is generally not something that interests us until we need it.  But, health systems do control the messaging that occurs at the entry points at every one of their facilities.  They control the staff and signage at those entry points and, most importantly, they drive the culture that influences how registrars, volunteers, security personnel and even clinicians interact with patients and visitors.    

The COVID-19 crisis is a stark reminder to providers that if they really need to communicate information to every hospital visitor they have a means to do so assuming they have the necessary resolve to train staff, change culture and instill the important mission in the mind of every employee.  Staff needs to be held accountable for the communications initiative as one of their core responsibilities.  Strategies for awareness to drive adoption of patient engagement initiatives have not been taken this seriously, but certainly should be.  Vendors need to include user adoption of their engagement solutions as a deliverable. To do this, they must commit to working closely with their health system customers to implement ways to bring broad awareness of their solutions to community members. Technology is meaningless unless it creates measurable value for the consumer. That’s impossible if the consumer isn’t aware the feature or innovation is available.

To be sure, there are low tech but high impact techniques for communicating important information while maintaining social distance and preventing the spread of germs.  Prominent signage can impact visitors without the need for them to come within 10 feet of hospital personnel.  QR codes have seen a resurgence as a means to communicate information quickly and at distance. Users can now scan QR codes by simply pointing their smartphone camera and tapping the notification that appears. This obviates the need for germ-friendly kiosks and complicated talk tracks employees must memorize.  Responsive web applications can be easily launched from a QR code without the intrusive interim step of requiring the user to download an app from the app store.

As provider organizations mobilize to inform visitors and patients about the official particulars related to COVID-19, I hope they see the opportunities to bring awareness and drive adoption for broadly applicable patient engagement initiatives such as wayfinding, telehealth, price transparency, and patient portal access.  These features can be powerful for driving affinity to the brand, but only if members in the community are aware they exist.