Blurring Lines Demand a New Approach to Healthcare PR and Marketing

By Ryan Lilly

This piece originally appeared on the HITMC blog:

The many predictions made at HITMC17 regarding increasingly blurred lines in healthcare seem to be coming to fruition. National headlines have been dominated for the last several months by stories regarding mega-mergers (CVS & Aetna, Cigna & Express Scripts) and speculation around technology giants like Amazon, Apple and Uber pushing into healthcare, not to mention JP Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway throwing their multi-billion dollar hats into the ring. But what does it all mean? At a macro level the answer remains to be seen, but at an organizational level it means that the stakeholders organizations have traditionally communicated to may be changing. This is, or at least should be, inspiring more and more brands to update communications strategies, reevaluate audiences and adjust value propositions.

No piece of the healthcare continuum is immune to impending changes. As we shift further toward value-based care and traditional models continue to be challenged, everyone is looking to move care away from acute settings. Simultaneously, urgent care centers and retail medicine are becoming increasingly accessible, providing patients (consumers) with more choices than ever before when it comes to accessing care. Not to mention that the pieces seem to be finally falling into place for telehealth and concierge medicine.

It is no longer enough to be “in network” or just one of a few options in a given geography. If you’ve spent any time in a new urgent care center recently, you will know what I am talking about. These places look increasingly like spas and are highly focused on customer (patient) experience and service – not traditionally healthcare’s strong suit. This means Open-Table-esque apps for scheduling and monitoring wait times, zero paperwork and an overall enjoyable experience for patients. Once they add ride-sharing into the experience, a perk some providers are already looking to leverage, accessing affordable healthcare via apps and automation becomes every consumer’s reality. If this isn’t enough to inspire change, just imagine the day when every CVS is also a retail clinic. This is the kind of market competition that should motivate communications professionals to revisit their brand differentiators, value propositions and overarching strategy.

Health technology vendors are also being directly impacted by the shifting ecosystem. With traditionally consumer focused vendors like Apple making their way into the industry, outdated user experiences within health IT will no longer be acceptable. After more than a decade of having cumbersome technologies pushed on them, healthcare providers are now demanding intuitive user experiences and functionality like that which they experience on their smartphone in their personal lives. There is no reason that a doctor should experience a digital downgrade the moment they enter the hospital and log onto their EHR.

In addition to the inherent demand for intuitive and interoperable technology, provider organizations are also increasingly looking to differentiate themselves through their vendor partnerships. While the technical nuts and bolts still matter, today’s hospitals and health networks don’t want to hear about your software; they just want to know if you can solve their problem and help them provide better care, attract more patients or reduce physician/clinician burnout and turnover. It took some time, but healthcare finally seems to be figuring out what consumer tech knew a long time ago – the technology is only as powerful as a person’s ability (willingness) to use it and affect meaningful change.

Innovation and a new generation of decision makers seem to finally be delivering on the transformative power of technology in healthcare. The market is also being “challenged” by outsiders, which is bringing new competition and forcing legacy organizations to reimagine their structure and role within the overall system. It is up to us as communication professionals to interpret and evolve with these changes. This can be challenging, as healthcare PR and marketing have traditionally benefited from a level of expertise and a somewhat specific approach. That said, now is not the time for a “because we’ve always done it that way” approach. We should increasingly look to consumer brands and other industries outside of healthcare to borrow and learn from their communications strategies and programs. Tactically, this may mean targeting non-traditional media, using different social channels or up leveling messaging to appeal to an average consumer. The most important thing is to never stop evaluating and evolving your program, because at the current rate of change what worked today might not work tomorrow.

Having spent the majority of my career in healthcare, like many of the readers of this blog, I am the first to acknowledge the perpetual, virtually annualized, conversations about tipping points and shifting sands in healthcare, or whatever nomenclature you prefer. That said, I think Dylan’s lyrics have never been truer – “the times they are a changin.” The question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not we, as marketing and PR pros, are ready for the change.