The COVID-19 pandemic has turned life as we know it upside down. Our instincts, as busy practice managers or clinicians may be to step away from marketing to deal with whatever today’s crisis might be. However, marketing has become the lifeblood of communication for your practice at a time when your patients need all the guidance and support you can muster. Are there best practices for healthcare marketing during a pandemic?
How should your efforts to market your medical practice change during this pandemic? What are the adjustments you should make in the strategy, messaging, or marketing channels? How can you use marketing to improve the patient experience, increase employee engagement, and build your practice during the challenging months ahead?
Let’s find out.
How Can You Use Marketing, Technology, and Communication Effectively During a Pandemic?
One of our clients is a large infertility treatment center. When authorities curtailed elective procedures to batten the hatches against COVID-19, this doctor could have simply resigned himself to losing revenue while keeping his patients safe. Instead, he chose to look at this difficult time in the practice’s history as a way to build it.
The clinical and administrative team in this practice understood that this period of hunkering down could be turned into a way to build consumer interest for the time when elective procedures could resume. The good news was that this particular doctor already had a strong social media presence on Facebook. He began offering his time to consumers of that platform in a live stream where he answered questions about infertility, providing support to women and families as they struggled. His live stream exploded in popularity, and he engaged his staff to help respond to potential customers during these events. The result was that when his practice reopened, he had new clients waiting in the queue to see his team.
The point to consider from this story is that marketing with social media or other Internet tools, even during a pandemic crisis, is an effective way to generate revenue in the medical practice. This is by no means the time to reduce your marketing spend or energy, but instead, it is the time to ramp up to see benefits now and later on.
What Have We Learned About Medical Practice Marketing During COVID-19?
One thing your current marketing firm may not tell you is that we’re seeing challenges we’ve never seen before, thanks to the coronavirus. Generally, marketing requires an agile state; teams are almost always expected to pivot quickly with market shifts. Today, though, we’re in uncharted waters. Marketing strategy and practice may (and perhaps should) exist in a fluid state in many companies. Today, that approach is multiplied by the rise and decline of an unseen virulent virus. Our practices and our marketing team have learned three critical best practices during this tumultuous time:
- Pivot fast
- Be sensitive in messaging
- Keep employees engaged
1. Pivot Fast
From a marketing perspective, medical practices now face frequent pivots, where it may be necessary to discard the existing strategy for a better approach. During the COVID-19 crisis, it’s important to have our eye on the future needs of your target audience but our strategies may shift given what’s happening right now, today, and this week. Marketing teams must keep a level head and be ready to pivot on a dime in this environment.
Becker’s Hospital Review recently interviewed a number of marketing executives who illustrate that even the promotional strategies for behemoth health systems are shifting during COVID-19. The CMO of Advocate Aurora Health in Illinois said, “We’ve sought to develop practical, informative content that is driven by the needs, questions, and fears of the consumers and communities we serve.”
As the pandemic waxes and wanes, the needs, questions, and fears of your target audience also will likely change. In this tumultuous environment, your website and social media elevate into primary education and support tools to respond to questions, quiet fears, and provide support to your community.
Patients need to know how to visit your practice, how to use telehealth if you offer it, and how you’re keeping patients safe. Patient readiness is more important than ever, and you can use technology to help.
A good guiding question that goes beyond the CDC recommendations for practice safety is: Are the needs and fears of the patients trusting your practice team to care for them during this crisis being met?
2. Be Sensitive in Messaging
Today, your website and social media channels are the go-to communication tools to reach your patients and to let them know about what they can expect the next time they walk into your office.
But marketing messages are more sensitive now. Practices struggle with how to prepare patients for this new experience of providing care. How do you let patients know what to expect when pulling into your parking lot? How can you use marketing to prepare patients for a doctor that is fully decked in protective gear or a nurse practitioner that is only available through a telemedicine videoconference? Are there other types of technologies you can use to get the message out to your waiting audience? What messages can go through secure texting or email in addition to your website?
If you’re relying on your website you can capitalize on patient messaging by throwing out one of the general best practice rules in healthcare and place a red header across the top of the page.
I know that every marketing expert tells you to stay within your brand colors. We don’t normally use the urgency of red to communicate in the average non-urgent medical practice.
That was then. This is now. Nothing draws the eye like the color red, so you can use your new urgent banner to communicate critical information to patients in real-time.
Practices that use this approach can communicate authentically with patients to help calm fears while letting them know what to expect in our “new normal.” The CMO of University Hospitals health system in Cleveland, Ohio, said it best, “In an environment where people are no longer able to meet face-to-face, human connections become more important than ever.” Medical practices can and must use marketing channels such as their website to communicate effectively with patients.
3. Keep Employees Engaged
The third lesson medical practices have learned during this crisis is to use marketing communication venues to keep their employees engaged. Many practices closed offices and furloughed workers this spring. In April, Merritt Hawkins reported 21% of physicians were furloughed and had their pay cut during the pandemic. Balancing the revenue losses associated with elective procedures forced many practice owners to cut compensation and furlough workers.
Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) reported that nearly one-half of all American medical practices laid off or furloughed staff this year. Employee engagement in this environment became a big problem for these facilities. The question became, ‘How do we keep furloughed employees engaged in the practice for as long as they’re away?’ Keeping them engaged long enough for their return to what most practices hoped would be a surgical backlog, became the rallying cry of healthcare organizations of all sizes.
Developing internal and external communication strategies to engage your sheltering-in-place workforce requires regular updates on the situation. Practices shared resources and information for their unemployed workers through internal communication channels such as emails, phone calls, or other personal touches. The trick was—and is—to use communication tools to keep furloughed workers feeling like part of the team even if they (temporarily) are not. You can use technology tools such as Facebook to communicate in closed groups to employees instead of using internal practice memos that the furloughed worker won’t see because they aren’t on-site. Creating a Facebook group will let you connect with current and former workers in ways that are meaningful and engaging.
What Can You Do Right Now to Market Your Medical Practice?
The answer to the COVID-19 pandemic is in many cases retreat, shore up our defenses against the virus, and then exercise appropriate caution when returning to the fray. This holds true for clinical and operational protocols across the board with one exception. What we’ve learned during COVID-19 is that there is an opportunity inherent in marketing that requires the opposite of retreat.
During this time, your customers look to your practice for messaging and guidance. At first, we saw many practices with the message of, ‘We’re open and this is what you can expect.” The savviest medical practices changed their messaging after practices reopened to focus more on the customer experience.
The number one priority for messaging now should be one of safety and “we’re here for you.” Some practices have also begun promoting preventative treatments; the latest data shows patients are avoiding routine screening procedures such as mammography or colonoscopy. In these cases, the messaging should be that our practice is safe and we want to keep you safe by providing proactive screening for these deadly diseases.
Many practices used the last six months to move beyond just providing information to launching new telemedicine service lines that brought in revenue while providing care to patients. With CMS lifting regulatory restrictions and requiring reimbursement at the same rate as an in-person visit, these new service lines added necessary revenue to replace some of the losses associated with elective procedures. We anticipate these revenue-generating services will continue in some form long after the coronavirus is part of history.
Practices seeking avenues to market their services now should look to social media as one of their most important practice tools. Occasionally updating your social media presence isn’t enough anymore; you must stay on the channel constantly to build a practice following. We’ve seen the practices that actively engage with their patients every day reap the reward of a more engaged patient community.
If you’re new to this communication channel it can be overwhelming. We recommend creating a Facebook strategy for your medical practice. With more than two billion active monthly users, it is a venue your patients use regularly to communicate. Creating a series of live Facebook events can build your practice credibility and engage potential new patients so that later on when they need help they will think of you first. It should be mentioned that live-streaming and posting on Facebook is completely free, marking this tool as effective from a cost and communication perspective.
Another tactic that’s important is to keep your directory listings up-to-date. This includes sites like Google My Business, which, like Facebook, can help your practice with positive consumer ratings of your team. The data shows 75% of all healthcare consumers review patient testimonials before setting an appointment. However, if you don’t regularly update and respond to these sites you will not reap their benefits.
A logical question we hear frequently is how much time should a practice spend on social media marketing. The answer is, right now, at least half of your marketing time should be messaging on social media. There will be more time spent upfront as you develop a presence, but the ROI is there, particularly now.
One tactic that can help your overburdened practice manager, or, if you’re lucky enough to have a marketing team, is to empower the entire staff to capture on-the-ground snippets that can help with social media.
Say you’re pushing outpatient hip surgeries but you don’t have a big budget to develop patient testimonial videos. The answer is to empower your doctors and staff to do a quick video of patients walking out of your outpatient facility after the surgery is over. (Obviously, the patients will have signed off on this.) It’s a great time to be nimble and try new things.
One thing to keep in mind is that you should not outsource your social media to general marketing firms. Messaging is too critical to your practice to trust it to a generalist. Make sure you have a healthcare agency that understands your business then have them partner with your staff to come up with the most relevant information to share on social media.
What’s Next for Marketing During COVID-19?
The healthcare industry has learned so many lessons from COVID-19 that will carry us forward from here. Our efforts to communicate and share information with patients, our staff, and the public have elevated marketing to the top of our daily to-do list.
We anticipate that marketing and communications will continue to remain critically important to your medical practice as we work to reassure, engage, and comfort our patients while meeting them where they are, be that on social media, or in our offices.