Are hospital marketers prepared for the next competitive front?
For roughly two decades, most hospitals and providers have cautiously courted telemedicine. There was a lot of flirting and talk of plans for the future, but little in the way of commitment. Sure, virtual care was different and fun to think about, but it came with a bit of baggage (regulation and reimbursement), making it easy to question the benefits of a committed relationship.
Then COVID-19 came along in March, threatening the survival of hospitals, health systems, and other provider groups. When elective procedures were paused and stay-at-home orders enacted, there was no choice but to fully commit to virtual care. Now, three months into that decision, the relationship is serious — and booming.
Telemedicine at warp speed
Think about this. Virtual visits in the U.S. jumped from 12,000 each week before the novel coronavirus began spreading here in March to now more than 1 million, according to Seema Verma, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In addition, the consulting firm McKinsey surveyed providers about telemedicine adoption, and respondents reported increases in virtual visits of 50 to 175 times pre-pandemic volumes.
Despite the quick and drastic shift away from in-person visits, patients and providers alike appear to be taking it in stride, with most feeling satisfied. In the same McKinsey report mentioned above, 76% of consumers surveyed claimed to be moderately or highly likely to use telemedicine from here on out. Further, a Sermo survey revealed that nearly 70% of physicians believe that the significant shift from in-person to virtual appointments will have a lasting impact on care delivery, with 77% of respondents supporting it.
This acceleration of telemedicine was spurred by the fact that most states, most health plans, and the federal government quickly removed regulatory, operational, and financial hurdles in order to expand access to telemedicine services. A number of these changes will likely stay, hinted Seema Verma recently: “I can’t imagine going back,” she said. “People recognize the value of this, so it seems like it would not be a good thing to force our beneficiaries to go back to in-person visits.”
Now that telemedicine has been released out into the wild, it will remain a critical component in the canon of care.
The imperative for health system marketers
So, what does this mean for health system and hospital marketers? Healthcare organizations and their marketing leaders are wise to recognize that telemedicine represents a major new competitive front.
It is a new front door to care for many health systems, and presents the opportunity to:
- Increase convenience and access to care, allowing providers to better adapt to and meet changing consumer expectations.
- Enhance patient retention efforts by offering more ways to interact with and be treated by their current provider(s).
- Support patient acquisition efforts by expanding service areas and reducing geographic barriers that may have impeded consumers from seeking care at your hospital or health system.
On the flip side, all of these opportunities are true for your competitors as well — including other hospitals, payors who operate their own platforms, big telemedicine companies, and emerging telehealth platforms. From our perspective, organizations that don’t recognize the need to actively promote their telehealth services will be picked apart by the competition.
We’ve been fortunate enough to work with health systems, such as Henry Ford Health System and VCU Health, that see the writing on the wall. A few months ago, they weren’t even mentioning telemedicine as an area of priority and, within weeks, now have campaigns specifically for their virtual care offerings in market.
The marketing challenge and opportunity
As evidenced by the different names and terminology used — telemedicine, telehealth, virtual care, etc. — it is noisy and confusing space. But the organization that can penetrate the noise with the best story and the most clear case will win.
There are several areas we think marketers need to focus on to get started.
- Determining the positioning. To keep messaging clear, it’s important to decide how to frame your telemedicine offering. For instance, will it be treated as its own kind of offering, or rolled in as a feature for existing service line campaigns? Do you want to position telemedicine as a top-of-the-funnel access point to bolster patient volume, or as a new delivery vehicle to further scale specialty care? Determining the positioning will determine the marketing.
- Understanding and educating your consumers. Consumers are just really becoming familiar with telemedicine — let alone how it works, when to use it, how to make an appointment, if it’s covered by insurance, and the like. So, go and ask them what they know, and what they need to know to use your virtual services confidently. Then respond accordingly with the right messaging, content, and resources to earn their trust.
- Strengthening your digital game. From creative campaigns to the everyday blocking and tackling of SEO/SEM and online reputation management, competition is and will be fierce in the digital trenches — especially with health plans and their telemedicine platforms investing heavily here. Having a comprehensive, coordinated digital marketing strategy in place is essential.
- Paying attention to the patient experience. In the rush to set up telemedicine programs at the start of the pandemic, many organizations didn’t have the luxury of thinking about the potential downstream impact on the overall patient experience. With elective procedures and services now being offered alongside virtual care, now is the time to evaluate your platform, especially at the intersection of marketing, operations, and clinical care, to ensure there aren’t any hiccups in the experience that will turn people away.
- Preparing for potential surges and a second wave. Virtual care is one of the most effective tools in a system’s toolbox to overcome the fears of visiting medical facilities, especially in the event of a new or sustained surge in COVID-19 cases. Telemedicine is one of the most important lines of defense against spikes and surges, in terms of being able to continue delivering care. Have a marketing and communications plan prepared to deploy at the first signs of a second wave of cases
It’s time to make the relationship official
While weeks in quarantine can feel like years, it’s pretty remarkable to see how provider organizations across the country have made the telemedicine marriage work during the past few months. That is no easy fete, even under the best of circumstances. Now, it’s up to marketers to share the news and benefits with consumers. So, what’s your plan?