Best Strategic Marketing Innovations | HealthLeaders Media

Three health system marketing executives detail their strategies that led to a return on investment and successful service to their patients.

Editor’s note: This article appears in the January/February 2022 edition of HealthLeaders magazine.

Consumer wants and needs are everchanging, and that’s why healthcare marketing leaders are finding fresh ways to attract patients to their hospitals and healthcare systems. This includes the use of digital marketing tools, social media, AI, and technology.

HealthLeaders spoke with marketing executives from Virtua Health, WellSpan Health, and Mayo Clinic about their strategic marketing innovations that led to a return on investment (ROI) and successful service to their patients and consumers.

Connecting with the right consumers through CRM

Virtua Health is a nonprofit health system serving communities in southern New Jersey and the Philadelphia area through five hospitals and over 270 care locations.

As the chief marketing officer of Virtua Health, Chrisie Scott, MBA, oversees the organization’s marketing, communications, public relations, and human experience departments. She also oversees the consumer access center, which is available for patients to call 24/7 to get questions answered and get connected to care.

“I like to think that I’m the connector for the organization. I get to hardwire the brand, the culture, and the clinical excellence in ways that are motivating and relevant to the audiences we serve,” Scott says.

Scott works closely with the other executives within the organization, including Virtua Health CEO Dennis W. Pullin, FACHE.

“I report directly to the CEO, and that is critical because it allows me to stay laser-focused on his agenda and road map for the organization. It gives me that close-up understanding of what’s in his heart and his head, so that I can shape the most impactful strategies and narrative,” she says.

Scott says she is aligned with many of the other senior leadership team members, too. “My job is to be the connector, and the first connection piece is that I bring the voice of those who we serve to the C-suite.”

“I’m fortunate to have an incredible relationship with my clinical executives. This allows me to figure out how we intersect quality and safety and marry that with the overall experience, so that it’s meaningful to our consumers.”

“Of course, every marketing officer has to be able to validate their return on investment with their financial executives,” Scott says. “I learn a lot from them and hopefully they learn a lot from me, especially with so many digital marketing tools and our ability to reach the right customer, on the right channel, at the right time. I help them understand how that works together, how we measure that, and report back to them.”

The consumer leads the strategy

Part of Virtua Health’s marketing strategy is to utilize its electronic health record (EHR) with its marketing customer relationship management (CRM) system. Through this capability, Virtua Health targets specific consumers and shares relevant information and messaging to try to connect them to their next best health action, Scott explains.

“What we’ve been able to do is, by taking a step away from traditional marketing and mass media marketing, we can identify high-risk patients who would benefit the most from the services and screenings that we offer,” she says.

Virtua Health also uses AI in its marketing strategy to “rapidly test the marketing messages in their creative.” Sometimes this includes doing A/B testing and seeing which images and calls to action garner the most response.

The AI “test quickly looks at who’s responding to what, and we change up our marketing in real time to be as impactful as we can,” Scott says.

The use of technology also promotes a humanistic approach. “We spend a lot of time on our team focusing on the language of healthcare,” she says. “We’re in tune with our words and the emotion and behavior that it connotes, and so we’re spending a lot of time utilizing that.”

Virtua Health also uses AI with its advertising buying process, which enables the health system to “find consumers and different audiences based on their media consumption and the channels that they’re using,” Scott says. “We’re doing a lot of that to help us find both new consumers as well as existing ones that are engaging with those platforms.”

It’s important to note that Virtua Health’s marketing strategy starts with the consumer’s needs, then uses technology to help innovate and meet those needs.

“One of the first things we did to bring the consumer voice to life is we recruited for a digital insight panel. Think of the old-fashioned focus groups, except they can now be summoned up digitally and segmented,” she says. This enables the health system to ask different audiences things that are relevant to them. There are about 30,000 consumers who are involved, which helps Virtua Health stick to its strategy of asking what the consumer wants, then delivering it.

Utilizing the CRM allows the health system to get even more personalized, she says, “to reach people and serve them information that’s most valuable to them. And we’re constantly optimizing that.”

The marketing team has an “interactive storytelling studio” that they utilize to share Virtua Health’s and patients’ stories. They also offer virtual tours for patients and potential patients to check out the hospitals and their offerings prior to being on location.

“If you were to come here, it would look like a television studio to you. We produce testimonials there. We do instructional videos. Our team is doing 360-degree virtual tours, which has come in handy during the pandemic. And we’ve got a studio for producing podcasts. We’re using that to its full advantage to help tell Virtua’s story and connect with the consumer,” Scott says.

Targeting specific consumers

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the health system was able to successfully convey to patients the seriousness of overcrowding and patient surges.

“This was such a massive undertaking. People listened; when we said stay away, they stayed away,” Scott says.

But after the initial surge, the health system also needed to let patients know that it was safe to get care if they needed it, especially when it came to chronic condition care, heart attacks, and cancer screenings.

“[We had to communicate that] not only is it safe to come back, but it’s urgent that they come back because they’ve not been in touch with their health in a very long time,” she says. The marketing team developed a set of strategies, worked closely with the health system’s leadership team, and utilized the CRM.

“Everyone that we’ve ever treated before technically had a next best health action that they could take and should be taking. We used our CRM to personalize those outreaches to the patients to help them get activated.”

The health system also focused on utilizing mass media to convey “that now is the time to get back to care. Using our propensity models within our CRM, we were able to look for people who had higher risk of having developed more serious complications around their health. We sent out some great messages around that,” she says.

Virtua Health also looked at which patients opened emails but may not have interacted with the emails further. This would result in a follow-up email to point patients toward the right care.

“We had great success, I would say in particular, getting people back to primary care, and getting those people who had chronic issues back into their treatment regimens.” They also saw success in connecting with those who needed routine screenings, such as mammograms and colonoscopies.

One of the organization’s most successful CRM strategies this past year was targeted communications that influenced more than 11,000 mammogram appointments. This resulted in 1,395 breast cancer diagnoses for patients who may not have otherwise scheduled their screening due to COVID-19 and pandemic restrictions.

Additionally, when Virtua Health educated patients about not delaying colon screenings, it launched a campaign for digestive health, which resulted in over 750 appointment requests in a short period, to help identify people at a higher risk.

Through utilizing a CRM attached to an EHR, the organization reconciles the financial metrics of its marketing outreach with patients’ resultant actions, she says.

“Marketing has this huge business responsibility. An investment is made in marketing to help connect people to care. The margins that are gained by the organization by growing these businesses help us reinvest in healthcare and help us continue to provide that care,” Scott says. “We continue to be a not-for-profit organization, but you still have to have revenue, and you still have to prove that the money that’s being invested in that is coming back into it.”

The marketing team uses a humanistic standpoint to ROI, including “the ROI of saving lives and the ROI of connecting people to healthcare,” she says. “We do a great job on our team of working closely with our finance team, and we work to reconcile the investment that we’ve made in marketing, and messaging, and campaigns, with the growth that we’ve seen.”

“Marketing is truly not only serving the mission of the organization, but it’s also helping the organization stay financially viable so that we can grow and continue to serve the community.”

She adds, “Our brand positioning is about being here for good, and that has resonated with the consumer during this time. It’s served as the backdrop during the pandemic.”

Marketing matters

Through the act of engagement and storytelling, marketers have the chance to make a difference for both the organization and the consumers.

“One thing I like to always say is that we, as marketers, have so much power,” Scott says. “Part of that power is in our ability to use language and storytelling to help connect to people’s hearts. I believe that one of the fundamental roles of healthcare marketing is to be a better part of somebody’s day. If we’re trying to connect people to care, or if we’re trying to reassure them about symptoms they may have been looking up, or if we’re trying to encourage them to take control of their health and feel confident and empowered in what they do, marketing truly has that ability.”

Scott adds, “We’re not the surgeons, we’re not in the OR, we’re not saving lives in that way. But we can have a profound impact on somebody’s life through the way we position our organizations, tell those stories, and connect people to what matters.”

Using tech to address the digital patient experience

WellSpan Health, which is headquartered in York, Pennsylvania, has a similar strategy in utilizing technology to reach its consumers across Pennsylvania and Northern Maryland.

Mark Kandrysawtz, MBA, vice president and chief innovation officer for WellSpan Health, says that the organization’s marketing goes hand in hand with the patient experience.

“Our brand is defined by how we make people feel from what they experience with us. That includes their experience in our facilities … or interacting with their provider. It also includes the things we do in our community,” he says.

Innovation is also a large part of WellSpan Health’s marketing strategy. The health system has a unique structure in how it approaches marketing and innovation, Kandrysawtz says. The marketing and innovation department is broken down into four sections:

1. Innovations division, which is home to the research and development team. They’re responsible for new product and service design, trials of new platforms of capability, and internal human-centered design consulting.

2. Enterprise digital health, which is responsible for the MyChart and MyWellSpan apps, as well as other consumer-facing digital health applications, such as WellSpan’s Video Visit platform.

3. Marketing, which is focused on being a strategic consultant to partners in the organization and throughout its service lines and covered regions, and helping to bring knowledge of WellSpan’s brand to those markets.

4. In-house creative studio, which is responsible for audio and video productions, live broadcast events, the organization’s design and copywriting teams, user experience, the user interface design teams, and the front- and back-end developers.

“We’ve combined a unique group of talented people who are in a position to study and understand consumers and their experience and use that insight as the basis for how we create new experiences moving forward,” Kandrysawtz says. “The relationship between experience and innovation is that we’re intimately involved in analyzing people’s experience with us as a key input in the design process of new innovations.”

The next generation of digital health and platform capabilities

WellSpan Health is currently focused on patient experience in several digital health initiatives, while also iteratively looking at new opportunities as they arise, Kandrysawtz says.

Currently, on average, patients self-schedule over 50,000 appointments per month utilizing WellSpan Health’s online scheduling options. The organization is also looking at other ways patients can utilize its technology offerings.

“Right now, what we’re focused on is the next generation of digital health. What I mean by that is, we believe that the pandemic has rapidly matured and tempered our major platforms of capability for digital health,” he says. “For example, our ability to deliver video visits reliably had to happen overnight. It’s a common platform that everyone’s used to using now because of the pandemic. What we see as the next generation is moving beyond just this common generic platform into custom, specialized technology experiences that pair with custom and specialized care models.”

Examples of this next generation of digital health for WellSpan patients and consumers include digital primary care services, online contraceptive services, and the utilization of AI to create a better patient-centric experience.

1. Duo Healthcare

“In primary care at WellSpan, you can interact with primary care mostly online, based off of your preference as a consumer,” Kandrysawtz says. “When we talk about the future of primary care online, we know it’s not just about being able to have a video visit.”

WellSpan created a new care model called Duo Healthcare, which is designed to be an active partnership between patients and their doctors, he says.

“What’s unique about Duo is it’s designed to be a partnership between patients who are actively engaged and incentivized to reach their optimum health. We know not every primary care consumer is actively working towards, or are goal-oriented towards, a particular health outcome. But there are some that are highly engaged. The idea is that we can better provide a synchronous and asynchronous ‘always-on’ partnership with the data streams to support that type of constant activity and proactive outreach from the care team. It’s a more defined, unique care model built on top of that generic enterprisewide platform capability.”

Duo Healthcare currently exists as a private beta for select major employers who were invited to test the beta. Over 250 live external customers are using the new care model to reach their optimum health.

2. Madeline RX

“A second example in this space where we’re designing audience-specific and customized experiences is something called Madeline RX,” Kandrysawtz says. “It’s online access to contraceptives for women in our communities.”

WellSpan Health created this online service to give patients a convenient experience to get prescriptions delivered right to their home in a way that beats major online retailers, while also having a trusted relationship with a provider, he says. This way patients don’t have to choose between convenience and trust.

All Madeline providers are practicing OB/GYNs in the WellSpan York Hospital.

“[Madeline] solves for both of those, where we see the competitive landscape solving almost exclusively for convenience and forgoing the relationship that so many of our consumers told us is still important,” he says.

Madeline is currently for consumers ages 18 to 50 in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

“One of the constraints we have in the digital health space, that the pandemic is helping to push towards the tipping point, is state-by-state licensure. So even though it’s an online platform, our providers have to be licensed in the state where the patient is when requesting service,” he adds.

3. AI

“At the other end of the spectrum, the platforms of capability we’re experimenting with are largely related to artificial intelligence. We’re doing that in the exam room and as part of the consumer experience,” he says.

Kandrysawtz says that in most cases, WellSpan Health doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to how consumers interact with technology, and it can look outside the industry to the retail consumer world for data.

“Consumers interact with technology all the time with every brand they interact with. We can study those best-in-class consumer experiences and learn from them about what drives a great consumer experience and adopt those similar methodologies in healthcare.”

AI can be utilized in many aspects of healthcare. Its applications range from “using artificial intelligence to dynamically and seamlessly schedule appointments, to being able to interact with the health system using your voice assistant from home and having that natural language conversational technologies experience be exactly the same whether you’re on your phone, on our website, texting, or even in the exam room,” he says.

Providers utilizing Dragon Ambient Experience (DAX), a voice AI technology, to help document patient visits have reduced their documentation time by 37% on average. This ultimately saves each provider 110 hours per year, which in turn gives them more time with their patients.

“With the AI projects, as we expand those pilots and prototype scenarios, we’re discovering how to measure them,” he adds. This can include hard ROI, the ability to make certain processes and functions easier and quicker for both the staff and patient. That, in turn, can sometimes mean new revenue, higher efficiency, and greater productivity.

“In the digital health space at a broader level, we have a sophisticated set of metrics that drive our strategies,” he says.

“For example, we are looking at the proportion of our unique patients who use their MyChart and MyWellSpan account and application. We’re looking at the proportion of those users that are low, medium, and highly engaged. Our focus on MyChart as the backbone of our digital health strategy has enabled us to be in the top 1% of MyChart users, specifically meaning the top 1% of organizations globally for having the most features deployed within MyChart. We view a robust enterprise-grade digital health platform as one of our differentiators in our market and as one of the key tools to earning loyalty from our consumers.”

Utilizing human-centered design and relationships

“We are huge proponents of human-centered design as a methodology to more intimately understand our consumers,” Kandrysawtz says. “That takes the form of primary research.”

This includes participant observation, interviewing, and layering those insights on top of the quantitative data the organization has about its markets and consumers, he says.

“The output of that is personas or characterizations of target audiences. Instead of thinking about the people we serve as a population that might have similar age and geographic location and other factors, we’re thinking about them as whole people. [We’re examining] the things that motivate them—their psychographic characteristics—so that we can deliver messages about programs and services that are most relevant to those particular audiences. We’re using our knowledge of personas as a critical input in the design of those new products and services.”

In 2020, Kandrysawtz says that WellSpan Health delivered 545,000 virtual visits. By December 2021, they were delivering about 161 times more virtual visits per month than they did pre-pandemic.

For 2022, their major focus and strategy will be on several marketing platforms of capability, he says. This includes utilizing a more sophisticated CRM, which will allow the automation of patient engagement, outreach for annual cancer screenings, and annual wellness visits.

“WellSpan aspires to be a trusted partner in our communities, an organization that inspires people to achieve their optimal health, and an organization that is known for transforming healthcare,” Kandrysawtz says.

“We believe that the foundation to helping people discover the path to reach their optimum health requires a deep and meaningful relationship. We translate this idea of inspiring health into marketing messages that spotlight the relationships our patients have with their providers. We underscore the value of the relationship as a pathway to discovering optimum health.”

Kandrysawtz adds, “The most important aspect of our job as marketers is to constantly, fastidiously learn about our consumers, listen to them, and allow the human experience that they have with our organizations and in our communities to be the primary and most important insight we use in the development of marketing.”

Addressing the needs of the patient through conditions-focused content

When it comes to Mayo Clinic, consistently ranked among the top hospitals in the nation with more than one million patient visits per year, the academic medical center headquartered in Rochester, Minnesota, focuses on patient needs in its strategic marketing efforts.

Sherri Gilligan, MBA, chief marketing officer for Mayo Clinic, says, “The most important thing is our primary value of Mayo Clinic: The needs of the patient come first. In marketing, we’re always working to understand what the patient needs are and how we can connect patients to Mayo Clinic who could benefit from our knowledge and care,” she adds.

Gilligan works closely with leaders across the organization, including physician and administrative leaders, to understand how Mayo Clinic can best serve its patients. She says she works most closely with the chief digital officer, Rita Khan, and chief public affairs officer, Patti Kushner, because of the nature of their positions.

“The patient is the heart of everything that we do. We’re continually thinking about how we can best benefit patients and how to communicate about what Mayo Clinic offers to people and our patients,” she adds.

Reaching consumers where they are

Gilligan says the marketing department is always seeking new opportunities to get the right information to the right people at the right time. This can include the utilization of social media and entertainment platforms on the internet.

“We recently started to work with YouTube on an initiative where we provide conditions-focused content,” she says. “We know that people are going to YouTube and other social media platforms to get their answers, and so it’s important that we continue to develop the evidence-based information to support anyone who is seeking this kind of content during the medical journey.”

Currently, Mayo Clinic has over 790,000 subscribers on its YouTube channel and has garnered over 1.7 million views on a recent video about the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine. The healthcare organization covers a myriad of topics on its channel, including information about the coronavirus pandemic, women’s health, infectious diseases, radiology, and brain health.

Utilizing storytelling to educate

How Mayo Clinic targets specific consumers depends on what the organization is trying to accomplish, Gilligan says. “If we’re focused on reaching an audience with a specific condition who could benefit from Mayo Clinic care, we’ll work to determine where it’s best appropriate for that audience to learn about Mayo Clinic.”

An example of this is the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center blog, an online resource that features news, education, podcasts, and personal stories and lets the reader filter by cancer type. The blog was launched in November 2021 to educate people with cancer, their families, and their caregivers.

According to Cheryl Willman, MD, executive director of Mayo Clinic Cancer Programs and the director of Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, the cancer center treats more than 24,000 patients who have been newly diagnosed with cancer and has more than 150,000 patients in active cancer treatment or survivorship care.

“The collaboration was between marketing and public affairs through coordinated cancer-related content delivery,” Gilligan says. “We integrated the content delivery, created the voice of the customer feedback, and it helped us generate additional content to the customers in the areas that they were the most interested in.”

“We emphasize storytelling in our campaigns because there’s such rich content,” Gilligan says. “Because patients are at different places of their care journey, we place the content by looking at the whole marketing funnel, starting with brand building right down through selection of Mayo Clinic.”

The organization is also constantly adapting and changing to accommodate the needs of patients and meet patients where they are. Mayo Clinic measures ROI through its marketing initiatives and keeps its finger on the pulse of its campaigns.

“Like all brands, we continually are adjusting the media based on consumer consumption habits,” she says.

“Our ultimate goal is that more people benefit from the life-changing care that we offer. Where we are able to do so, we look at the audience we reach with our messages and what campaigns convert people to come to Mayo Clinic for care. We’re always constantly analyzing that,” she says.

The organization has continued to focus on streaming services as a way to share marketing messages and will continue to assess and meet the patients and consumers where they are.

“In the last few years, we’ve invested a lot in what we call ‘over the top,’ which you might know as streaming services, because that’s coming in more and more,” she says. “Marketing is never stagnant because consumers aren’t stagnant, and they’re always changing their consumption, and so we change to them.”

Gilligan says that it’s important for Mayo Clinic and other healthcare organizations to keep the patient at the forefront. “It is all about putting that patient and the customers at the center of everything that we do. Knowing them so well and knowing how our organization can positively impact that customer is the heart of designing any impactful marketing campaign,” she says.

Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

Photo credit: Chrisie Scott, MBA, Chief Marketing Officer at Virtual Health in New Jersey. Photo by Jeff Fusco/Getty Images.

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