Building the Playbook for a Pandemic at Rush University Medical Center

by | Dec 1, 2020 | Healthcare Industry Insights | 0 comments

At Rush University Medical Center, our battle cry as COVID-19 hit Chicago was “we’re built for this.” While true about the physical facility, this principle especially applies to our workforce. Our people continue to be our greatest resource. They are truly built for this.

Ryan Nagdeman,  Associate Vice President, Marketing & Communications at  Rush University Medical Center shares his playbook for the COVID pandemic

Ryan Nagde­man, Asso­ciate Vice Pres­i­dent of Mar­ket­ing & Com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Rush Uni­ver­si­ty Med­ical Center

A foun­da­tion of our approach to cri­sis man­age­ment start­ed with 9/11. As a result, Rush Uni­ver­si­ty Med­ical Cen­ter was pre­pared for this type of new cri­sis. In a mat­ter of weeks, the hos­pi­tal was flipped from reg­u­lar busi­ness to COVID-19 patient care. Lob­bies had inner work­ings for IT and air­flows to become new units—and it was all by design.

We’re a cul­ture built around excel­lence, focused on qual­i­ty out­comes, team­work and trans­paren­cy. Our tagline is “excel­lence is just the begin­ning.” That authen­tic aspi­ra­tion fuels all our mar­ket­ing and communications.

Creating the Playbook

Ear­ly in the cri­sis, I could hear the CEO say­ing “there is no play­book for this.” So it’s no sur­prise that some­one sug­gest­ed we cap­ture the steps tak­en to man­age the sit­u­a­tion. Our team worked with oper­a­tional lead­ers to pack­age a com­pre­hen­sive cri­sis man­age­ment resource. It was titled: “Excel­lence Leads the Way: A play­book for nav­i­gat­ing the clin­i­cal and oper­a­tional chal­lenges of a glob­al health crisis.”

We devel­oped a sim­i­lar play­book for the uni­ver­si­ty response, too. The uni­ver­si­ty went vir­tu­al overnight. We had the tools, as pri­or to COVID-19, our nurs­ing school was ranked No. 1 online by U.S. News and World Report. We had worked so hard on pre­pared­ness that doc­u­men­ta­tion was a way to cap­ture the how-to moments. The response from oth­er orga­ni­za­tions and social media was inspir­ing. We put our sto­ry out there as many of our peers need­ed ideas for how to man­age COVID-19 with­in their own orga­ni­za­tions. This lat­er trans­formed into a new method to serve the com­mu­ni­ty as a “busi­ness solu­tions” resource and con­sul­ta­tion service.

Shifting Priorities

In light of COVID-19, we reduced our spend­ing for TV and radio and paused patient acqui­si­tion chan­nels. This was dark for about 6–7 weeks until ear­ly May, when we could start again with elec­tives on May 13.

Our social media and earned media place­ments were incred­i­ble. We had lead­ers, experts and providers fea­tured on local, region­al, nation­al and inter­na­tion­al out­lets. Dur­ing this time, we saw over 40,000 non-COVID-19 emer­gent cas­es. We start­ed gath­er­ing those sto­ries so they could be told late April to May and we could say “it’s safe to come back” in our marketing.

We did some quick research to help plan our piv­ot, but we also knew how con­sumers felt. They were anx­ious and need­ing infor­ma­tion. Engage­ment on email and social media was incred­i­ble. Email open rates sky­rock­et­ed to 60% for con­sumers and 40% for refer­ral audi­ences. Our social media reach and engage­ment were com­pet­ing with nation­al lead­ers. Inter­nal sig­nage and out-of-home (OOH) adver­tis­ing were moti­va­tion­al for staff. This includ­ed a big “wash your hands” sign on the side of our hos­pi­tal over­look­ing a major high­way in Chica­go. We added radio back into the mix—including an ad we planned, wrote, pro­duced and aired in a week. Peo­ple noticed it all.

Keeping the Team Engaged

To mir­ror the front­line mind­set dur­ing the cri­sis, we moved to shift work in mar­ket­ing. Every day, we hud­dled with the uni­ver­si­ty at 8 am, the hos­pi­tal com­mand at 9 am, and the rest of the mar­ket­ing team at 11 am. The after­noon became work time or oppor­tu­ni­ties for col­lab­o­ra­tion. It all fun­neled back in around 4 pm for the dai­ly com­mu­ni­ca­tions updates for Rush Uni­ver­si­ty Med­ical Cen­ter staff, stu­dents and mes­sag­ing for patients.

Assign­ments and pri­or­i­ties were incred­i­bly clear dur­ing the ear­ly days of COVID-19. The focus helped so much for the busi­ness of the day. We had peo­ple on dai­ly assign­ments or “not on call” that day, so our rota­tion offers the chance for a breather or to look at recov­ery busi­ness (which we hoped was coming).

Finding Inspiration

Going back to the play­book, we told our­selves, “We need to come up with the answers, who else could give us ideas?” This was our first pan­dem­ic. We relied on each oth­er and talked through deci­sions. Anoth­er piece of our brand is that team com­po­nent. We’re at our best in a crisis.

As we have moved into the recov­ery phase, I saw some old habits return­ing where lead­ers were bench­mark­ing our mar­ket­ing to oth­ers. I remind folks that some­times being orig­i­nal is the way to stand out. I am proud of the work Rush Uni­ver­si­ty Med­ical Cen­ter has accom­plished and am hon­ored to be part of the sto­ry­telling. Some­times, we need a reminder of our role as a leader.

Looking Ahead

When I think about how to keep the momen­tum of the past few months going for health­care mar­keters, I believe we need to retain the nim­ble­ness we’ve achieved as we move for­ward. Not every­thing needs to be the big, slow-mov­ing ice­berg. For exam­ple, we are some­times film­ing videos with our phones. We have embraced the vir­tu­al meet­ing rooms. Some of us have to be here to lead in cat­e­gories for oper­a­tions, but many mem­bers of the team are at home.

The deliv­ery of vir­tu­al care will also be a main­stay. We were doing this a year before COVID-19. Ini­tial­ly, we had great next-day access and con­sult appoint­ments. We’re now push­ing dig­i­tal front door ini­tia­tives with video or vir­tu­al vis­its and encour­ag­ing con­sumers to come to us for a sec­ond opin­ion. Many of these entry points lead to patients real­iz­ing they need it or com­ing in for care.

Final­ly, I would advise peers to get com­fort­able ask­ing ques­tions. Lessons learned dur­ing the mas­sive dig­i­tal meet­ing era will help us with our dig­i­tal eti­quette for how we col­lab­o­rate and act. I think peo­ple will be more engaged. If not, oth­ers will notice!

About the Author: Ryan Nagde­man is asso­ciate vice pres­i­dent of mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Rush Uni­ver­si­ty Med­ical Cen­ter. He recent­ly joined the advi­so­ry board of our Health­care Insight mag­a­zine. He leads mar­ket­ing teams for all Rush hos­pi­tal, aca­d­e­m­ic and research adver­tis­ing cam­paigns, tar­get­ed mar­ket­ing, mar­ket­ing admin­is­tra­tion, and dig­i­tal prop­er­ties, includ­ing the web and social assets.

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