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Healthcare Marketing Panel Discussion Recap: Challenges and lessons in the time of COVID-19

Insights and inspiration from top Wisconsin healthcare system marketing and communications pros

Last week I had the honor of facilitating the closing panel at the annual Wisconsin Healthcare Public Relations and Marketing Society (WHPRMS) conference, a discussion of “Challenges and Lessons in the Time of COVID-19.” We and the audience were able to gather insights and inspiration from our expert panelists, to whom we are enormously grateful for sharing their time and thoughts. They include:

  • Andy Brodzeller, External Communications Manager, Children's Wisconsin
  • Jon Ollmann, Director, Marketing and Brand Strategy at Thedacare
  • Susen Rasmussen, Director of Strategic Communications at ProHealth Care
  • Jamey Shiels, System Vice President, Consumer & Digital Experience, Public Affairs and Marketing at Advocate Aurora

Our key takeaways from the discussion follow, providing insights into communication in healthcare.

These past six months have been an “exhausting and exhilarating” ride for healthcare marketing and communications professionals.

Our panelists all agreed that with its very long days, weeks and months, this time has been one of stress and exhaustion as well as excitement, purpose and fulfillment. They compared the experience to the Gravitron — the amusement ride on which you spin fast and get momentum before the bottom drops out — and Space Mountain — a roller coaster that is dark and indoors and you don’t exactly know what’s coming. I think we can all relate to that, and know that we are not alone on this ride.

The COVID-19 crisis has expedited the digital transformation happening within some healthcare systems.

Mirroring what we’ve all seen nationally, health systems have needed to quickly step up their digital care delivery and marketing efforts to meet the needs of patients and communities.

“This has advanced a digital transformation that would have taken years to achieve,” according to Jamey Shiels with Advocate Aurora. He said the system had a goal of 25,000 video visits for 2020 and is now on track to surpass one million this year, having quickly expanded from 30 virtual care providers to over 4,000. “In virtual health, where we are today is where I thought we were going to be in 2025.”

Susen Rasmussen from ProHealth shared a similar experience. “It’s been a whirlwind. It has been exhilarating. And we have accomplished so much. If there’s a silver lining — which you feel guilty even saying — it’s the advancement in digital that we’ve been able to achieve. It’s amazing. It would have taken us years. Our plan had us achieving in three years what was done in three months.”

"Agile is the term of our environment. And we’ve got to continue to be flexible and be able to pivot on a dime." - Jon Ollmann, ThedaCare

Healthcare marketing and communications teams are learning to be more nimble and agile. Planning cycles are increasingly fluid.

Digital transformation is not the only thing speeding up — everything is accelerating, starting with planning. Some of the systems still do annual planning, plus quarterly plans, while others are more focused on quarterly targets. ThedaCare (in the interest of full disclosure, a Core Health client) has an eight-week surge communications plan in development which will likely change before those weeks have passed, as conditions and needs change.

“Usually we have time and opportunity to plan, anticipate and be thoughtful in what our changes are going to be. From day one it’s been going with the flow and doing the best you can.,” said Andy Brodzeller from Children’s Wisconsin. With regard to planning, he further explained: “Every quarter, at least, if not more frequently, we will sit down with senior executives and evaluate, where are the questions, where are the needs, where can we prioritize to invest. COVID-19 has really forced us in positive ways to rethink what’s the most effective way to think and plan and be nimble.”

“It has really brought to the surface our need to be nimble as an organization.,” noted Jon Ollman from ThedaCare. “We really need to focus our priorities on the critical few, and that is easier said than done.” Early in the crisis, Ollman initiated the development of a new microsite to serve as a community COVID-19 resource, taking less than two weeks to develop it in its initial iteration. “Agile is the term of our environment. And we’ve got to continue to be flexible and be able to pivot on a dime.”

Advocate Aurora, according to Shiels, has a five-year plan to take them to 2025, as well as quarterly planning and a lot of flexibility built in with regard to how they get to their big audacious goals.

I think, actually, we are more connected and more in tune in some ways now that we might have been six months ago.

Andy Brodzeller – Children's Wisconsin

New practices to keep internal teams connected and informed have been crucial to success.

Some of our panelists had tools in place at the start of the crisis, such as ProHealth Care’s internal news feed, that were critical to communication in the early stages of the pandemic. For most, quickly standing up new solutions for internal connectivity was a key early step. Tools including system-wide WebEx for town hall meetings, new Zoom workflows and Slack are helping communicators advance their work without seeing each other in person.

Brodzeller from Children’s Wisconsin spoke of the extremely high interest and engagement from team members interested in hearing from leaders via frequent virtual meetings. “I think, actually, we are more connected and more in tune in some ways now that we might have been six months ago.”

Susen Rasmussen noted that ProHealth Care has, at this stage, shifted resources more towards internal communications, emphasizing two-way connectivity via text and email — not just one-way emails to which team members cannot respond. Their streaming executive forums, like those at Children’s Wisconsin, have been very well received.

As COVID-19 resurges in our state, system communicators are “pivoting” to support continued safe access to care and refocus communities on safe practices.

Like many systems around the U.S., some of our panelists have launched campaigns to communicate the promise of safe care to hesitant consumers. Advocate Aurora with its “Safe Care Promise” and ProHealth Care with its “Even Safer” campaign have both sought to boost consumer confidence. Now, with Wisconsin surging and its recognition as one of the epicenters of the United States, these reassuring messages may no longer be appropriate. In response, communicators are shifting their focus.

According to Rasmussen, for example, ProHealth Care’s “Even Safer” campaign resonated quickly and has run its course. Now the system is directing patients primarily to virtual visits as a first step, supporting its COVID-19 hotline and ramping up drive-up testing sites. It’s also funding paid campaigns promoting flu vaccines for the first time, given the likely complications of the flu and COVID-19 converging this season.

Advocate Aurora, according to Shiels, is using outdoor advertising in Milwaukee and other public service channels to promote masking and other safe behavior. In Illinois, the system has an interesting partnership with the state department of health, through which it will remotely monitor any state resident who has tested positive for or been exposed to COVID-19, thereby protecting system resources and ensuring they are available for the most serious cases.

ThedaCare’s Ollman discussed how that system, too, is shifting towards more of an educational focus. It is also active in a regional collaboration called Be Safe Wisconsin consisting of health systems, government entities, school systems and large employers with the aim of encouraging safe community behaviors.

"When many of us work in healthcare, we’re purpose driven. When you see those patient stories of recovery, the 1000th patient that is discharged, our teams can rally around that." - Jamey Sheils, Advocate Aurora

Healthcare marketers can look to patients, their teams and their leaders for inspiration during this crisis.

If there was one thing we hoped the audience would take away from this discussion, it was a bit of inspiration for their own hard and important work, which can be found from many sources.

As Jamey Shiels from Advocate Aurora explained, “When many of us work in healthcare, we’re purpose driven. When you see those patient stories of recovery, the 1000th patient that is discharged, our teams can rally around that.”

ProHealth Care’s Rasmussen shared a similar sentiment, noting the feel-good positive feedback from patients on feeling very safe receiving care, as well as the success of breaking out of existing boundaries to work towards success with additional team members.

In contrast, Andy Brodzeller from Children’s Wisconsin highlighted the critical role of leadership in inspiring the team. “They set the tone early and it’s allowed us to do amazing things over the past six months.”

You inspire us. Thank you for all you do.

Again, I’d like to express sincere gratitude to our panel for sharing with us, as well as to WHPRMS for organizing this event and the audience for its participation.

To our clients, also, a huge thank you; personally, I’ve found these past six months to be the most purpose-filled of my thirty-year agency career. It is an absolute honor to serve you.

We at Core Health wish you all continued inspiration and success in your hard and critically important work during the remainder of this crisis.

Contact us with any questions. Our team is ready to support or help guide you in any way with healthcare communications strategy and healthcare market research.


Sue Spaight is the Vice President of Insights and Strategy at Core Health, Core Creative’s specialized healthcare marketing practice. Core Health connects its clients with solutions that help their audiences live fuller, healthier, more purposeful lives.

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