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In Sickness and in Telehealth

In Sickness and in Telehealth

Steve Heisler

illustration of male doctor communicating with patient on laptop

Virtual appointments with doctors are paramount in the age of COVID-19, and marketers can encourage customers to head online by presenting a holistic healthcare plan

Telehealth is taking center stage during the coronavirus pandemic, as facilities try to avoid overwhelm and contagion. But prior to the outbreak, the statistics around consumer confidence in the platform suggest patients hadn’t yet been won over. A 2018 report by Deloitte found that only 53% of participants felt that their telehealth providers were just as knowledgeable as someone they would see in person, and fewer than half claimed the wait time was shorter, the doctor made them feel comfortable and that they received the information they needed. From a pragmatic standpoint, America’s decentralized healthcare infrastructure isn’t well-suited to host a robust telehealth system. It’s often not even clear who will be reimbursing customers for the costs, if at all.

But telehealth is paramount in reinforcing the principles of social distancing while providing sick patients with immediate support, which means marketers must immediately educate consumers on the benefits. The good news is that they won’t be starting from scratch: Deloitte further discovered rising numbers—particularly among millennials—in utilizing other forms of technology to monitor their health, including voice assistants, mobile prescription alerts and fitness-tracking software. The next step, then, is to start promoting telehealth as not just a viable alternative to an in-person visit but as a necessary first line of defense against the virus.

Rajesh Midha, chief strategy officer at Bottle Rocket, explains how healthcare marketers can undergo a paradigm shift in how they view their customers holistically, plus what the healthcare landscape might look like post-pandemic and where marketers best fit in.

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Q: What are some key points for healthcare marketers to keep in mind?

A: The No. 1 thing to know is that we are living in a totally new time. The majority of areas that people were focused on, those have all been deprioritized. … What has emerged is a laser focus on clarity of messaging to help patients who are trying to understand how they should access the healthcare services in this new COVID-19 time.

I would say let’s use our excellent communication skills and help our health system partners with, say, where should [patients] be going for testing? How can they access telemedicine or other online services? Or what should they be doing to practice social distancing, but also take some exercise or stay engaged on their mental health?

Q: Have you noticed a change in use over the last month or so?

A: They were always priorities—for example, making an online or video visit was always a priority for health systems—but they were not major. Those virtual types of visits have now moved to the top of the list. And I’ll be very specific: There’s one health system that we work with where as soon as COVID-19 started to move to this side of the world, we had some conversations with them and we said, “Your access to your telehealth is three pages down from your main website. Let’s put it right on the homepage.”

It can’t just be about your product. It has to be your product with deep empathy for what’s going on in the consumers’ or patients’ lives right now with actionable suggestions that are relevant to a world of coronavirus.

Rajesh Midha, chief strategy officer, Bottle Rocket

Q: What should consumer messaging look like?

A: The things that will resonate with consumers now are [that] it’s possible to take care of your health and still practice social distancing. I would be encouraging people to do simple exercises at home, stretching or walking. I would be directing people to different mental health-type mindfulness exercises and apps. And I would be encouraging people to think about their total health during this period of social distancing.

It can’t just be about your product. It has to be your product with deep empathy for what’s going on in the consumers’ or patients’ lives right now with actionable suggestions that are relevant to a world of coronavirus.

Q: How have consumers’ perceptions of telehealth changed?

A: Having looked at some of this data, there was a perception that [telehealth] was lower quality, the tools were hard and the patient couldn’t figure it out. And I think there was a perception that it just wasn’t as good. I’m not saying all of those things are solved, but [now they think], “Wow, it is good enough.”

Q: Did the coronavirus expedite those changes?

A: A lot of people are forced to adopt new ways of communicating. And in some sense—[things like] online grocery delivery have been around for a really long time. But right now, all of a sudden, online grocery delivery is utilized everywhere. And stats are through the roof. It’s similar to accessing telemedicine, whether that’s for physical healthcare or mental healthcare. [They’ve] been around for a long time. But it’s now the primary suggested way of keeping yourself and your physician safe. It’s forcing people to move to it more quickly.

Q: What can marketers do as a first step in adapting to the needs of a digitized healthcare industry?

A: There’s not a lot of appetite for new initiatives, but I try to prepare myself for the period of time when healthcare marketers are ready to partner. The kinds of things I would be thinking about are patients as consumers. [When they] visit the website, they need to be able to create an account and receive communication from their health system that’s appropriate for them and their condition at the right time.

That health system needs to think about the lifetime experience of that patient, and helping them to take action on the things that are most relevant to the stage of life that they’re in. And the market in general is very competitive. If we are a healthcare system, which manages hospitals and many doctor’s offices, we need to think about having a relationship [with patients] and shifting the world from healthcare where somebody is contacting us when they’re sick to really thinking about—it’s not sick care, it’s proactive healthcare on an ongoing, future-looking basis.

Q: Will these changes stick after the pandemic is over?

A: This trend started before COVID-19 and will continue long past. Healthcare is probably the area that is most ripe for innovation out of all the sectors that have a very strong technology component and a very strong patient, customer-centric type of mindset. Healthcare is a laggard.

We have so much opportunity in healthcare to take the best of what we’ve learned in the B2B and B2C sectors, including from big technology companies, and apply that now in terms of how we think about taking care of a patient for their life.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Steve Heisler is staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at sheisler@ama.org.