Weill Cornell Medicine is at the forefront of digital transformation in health care. Kaitlyn Tuson is at the center of this shift, and she shares learnings from her role in developing a telehealth marketing plan and reimagining the care experience for both patients and providers.
For more than 120 years, Weill Cornell Medicine (WCM) in New York, NY, has pioneered world-class clinical care and cutting-edge research. This forward-thinking culture—consisting of more than 22 clinical service lines and dozens of multidisciplinary centers and programs—is reflected throughout the organization.
During the height of COVID-19, their physician organization with more than 1,600 physicians across 40+ locations quickly shifted their care model to utilize telemedicine and went from just a few hundred Video Visits per week to thousands per day across all clinical services. Their telemedicine readiness allowed them to deliver both primary and specialty care services to their hundreds of thousands of patients across New York City and the surrounding areas during the height of the pandemic. WCM remains ahead of the curve in telemedicine and they have continued to extend their virtual patient care experience beyond just the delivery of care.
That tradition of innovation continues with the organization’s commitment to digital transformation and improving the patient experience—and the WCM marketing team plays an essential role in this evolution.
We spoke with WCM Physician Organization Marketing Officer Kaitlyn Tuson about marketing’s role in developing the telehealth marketing plan, leveraging data to drive adoption among both consumers and providers and her advice for peers seeking to make the shift.
TRUE NORTH: WHERE DOES DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION AND THE SHIFT TO TELEMEDICINE RANK AMONG YOUR PRIORITIES?
Tuson: It has been on my priorities since I started at WCM as a consultant in 2018; however, internal adoption was a bit slow to catch on simply because it wasn’t nearly as essential as it was just a few months ago. Also, our physicians pride themselves on personalized, compassionate care, so while the platform was there, the adoption—both from physicians and patients—wasn’t necessary until the pandemic hit. I believe that COVID-19 forced us to be more creative about our care model and how we deliver our services. Thankfully, our innovative teams had already launched the technology, so the platform was there for our providers to leverage when we needed it.
Now, it’s been adopted across the institution and remains a top priority for everyone. Usage of patient portals and what I refer to as digital health tools are also a top priority and actively tracked daily with a dynamic dashboard. That business intelligence allows us to be nimble from a marketing and communications standpoint. And we track more than just Video Visits and other methods of care delivery. It spans way beyond just the delivery of care. As marketers, we recognize that the patient experience extends well beyond the exam room, especially in today’s environment. We’re looking at every single touchpoint to identify gaps. We have to modernize the entire patient experience if we want to compete in a market that is quickly advancing.
TRUE NORTH: WHAT IS THE ROLE OF MARKETING IN ADVANCING THIS INITIATIVE?
Tuson: Our role is primarily about adoption, both internally and externally. We’ve watched as telehealth-related search trends spiked during the pandemic and continue to expand our digital marketing campaigns accordingly. Prior to the pandemic, there was a general lack of awareness around telehealth, particularly in certain audience segments. We’ve kept a pulse on the increased number of searches across the tri-state area (since New York City is such a commuter city) to help us identify where we should be targeting. Our patients extend into Connecticut and New Jersey, so we’re definitely targeting some of that volume because telehealth allows us to offer initial consults virtually. This means we are able to leverage telehealth more as a patient acquisition tool, especially as we notice that patients are far more hesitant to come in for in-person visits. A year ago, this notion was met with resistance both from a patient and a physician perspective.
Leading up to all of this, I believed that it was our mission to educate patients about the benefits and use cases for telehealth. As any good marketer knows, motivating adoption (especially when marketing intangibles like technology and health services) relies heavily on ease of understanding and ease of use. Thankfully, we had done much of that initial planning and research work prior to COVID-19 so we felt relatively prepared (well, as much as one can be) for the rapid adoption of telemedicine. But, I think for those who haven’t maybe had that sort of lead-time, there is so much more data out there today on consumer behavior than what we had when we began developing our marketing strategy. We are now going back and re-looking at the data and either validating or making tweaks with these new insights.
Marketing plays such a critical role in the messaging and packaging of digital health services and tools. This extends beyond Video Visits to include our patient portal, our virtual check in and check out processes, remote prescription refills, our new patient acquisition strategies and leveraging telemedicine for initial consults. When I embarked on this more than a year ago, I saw that marketing’s role was to package all of these intangible digital tools and services together so we could more easily communicate them in a comprehensive manner. This packaging exercise was also meant to create a whole new value prop for us. Our patients are loyal because of our care, but we weren’t known for being modern or easy to navigate. By creating a “Digital Health” messaging platform, we could start to change that perception. I’ve seen many organizations do the same—healthcare marketers need to find ways of simplifying telehealth to make it more consumable.
I think in healthcare we have the habit of making things more complex than they need to be. We forget that simplification is really what the consumer wants. This is especially true when it comes to developing assets. I was grateful to have experience in tech and I’ve executed repackaging exercises for brands like Oracle so I leaned into my tech marketing background. As healthcare marketers, we have advantages that many other industries don’t. Since we’re a bit behind the curve on digital transformation, we can look to other brands that have done it well and learn from them.
Given my background, I chose to look at some of the best practices that brands like Oracle and IBM leverage and I asked myself: “How does a tech company typically overcome these common adoption issues?” When you look at campaign landing pages for a tech company, you can see that they often have demo videos, white papers and FAQs. So the first thing I did was focus on instructional content that made these intangible digital health tools more tangible and digestible for the average patient. It’s important to keep in mind that many patients aren’t tech savvy so we looked at tailoring our content for all demographics and skill levels.
Healthcare marketers are unique because our target demographics typically span a wide range, so its really important for us to ensure that our content is just as easily understood by millennials as is by the 60+ age brackets. By taking this approach, we saw that 30–40% of our telehealth users during the peak of COVID-19 were in the 60+ age bracket. We knew that if our content hadn’t been crafted with that demographic in mind prior to COVID-19, we would have likely seen a much different rate of adoption. We also saw an uptick in non-English speaking telehealth users and we quickly translated our materials into multiple different languages early on.
As healthcare marketers, it’s our duty to ensure that all of our patient demographics are considered. Take the time and really understand your different audiences, it always pays off.
There is so much that healthcare marketers can do as we all embark on this rapid digital transformation, but first and foremost, it’s important to look beyond ourselves and seek insight from other brands and industries outside of healthcare. Yes, many industries are way ahead of us, and often times we find that frustrating, but it actually gives us some advantages. I think that as marketers, we offer significant value when we bring an outside viewpoint combined with a deep understanding of our patient audiences and consumer behaviors. In a nutshell, I believe those are some of the most impactful perspectives that we can bring to the table.
TRUE NORTH: HOW ARE YOU MEASURING SUCCESS OF YOUR TELEHEALTH MARKETING PLAN?
Tuson: We approach measurement from both qualitative and quantitative perspectives, using tools like Google Analytics to track our campaigns along with tracking our patients through to the point of conversion.
To glean qualitative insights, I’m always a fan of running patient surveys to gauge satisfaction on the whole experience. Patient surveys are a great tool for the providers, staff and overall operations so I really think the cross-functional benefits warrant considering a well-constructed patient survey on all aspects of telemedicine. Historically, there were many hurdles and anecdotes regarding the quality of care being delivered through telemedicine services. That patient perspective—whether good, bad or indifferent—can offer a lot of decision-making insight. And I think we all recognize the level of importance that physician leaders place on data. Telemedicine at this scale is new to all of us, so the more information we can share on the patient experience, the more empowered we become as marketers and communicators.
From a quantitative standpoint, we’re lucky to have a robust analytics department. We were able to leverage intelligence that allowed us to be nimble as marketers. For example, was a lot of sentiment that we needed to do a better job targeting the older demographics when promoting telemedicine. However, when we saw that one of our largest user groups was the 60+ age bracket, we knew our work had been successful. That allowed us to shift more effort towards some of the demographic groups that needed a bit more persuasiveness. I recognize that not every marketing team has access to dashboards, but there is a lot you can learn through Google Analytics. We use tracking codes on everything we do, especially our organic content. We rely on engagement metrics to help dictate our patient podcast and blog content. Those are simple metrics that any marketing team can deploy regardless of budget or tech stack.
TRUE NORTH: WHAT HAVE BEEN THE GREATEST OBSTACLES SO FAR AND HOW ARE THEY BEING ADDRESSED?
Tuson: A year ago I would have said internal adoption of telemedicine, but now I think this pandemic has made it far too obvious to ignore. Thankfully, we had the technical aspects in place pre-COVID-19. I know many of our competitors only had a few service lines ready for telemedicine deployment so that readiness was a blessing. It allowed us to focus on patient adoption at the start of the pandemic. What’s great is that telemedicine is here to stay. A silver lining to this pandemic has been the wide adoption and awareness of telemedicine at the consumer level. That adoption gives every healthcare organization an opportunity to create a better patient experience.
Frankly, I think we can all agree that our patients deserve a better experience. There’s been an expectation set by other industries for years, but now its finally at the top of everyone’s objectives. Patients don’t understand why we can’t follow suit and I don’t blame them—we absolutely should!
Marketers and communicators have an obligation to keep patients top of mind as we forge ahead, knowing that in the end, they will have a better experience. Fighting a disease like cancer is hard enough. Telemedicine, patient portals, apps, remote health monitoring—these tools make managing care easier and allows our providers to extend themselves into a patient’s home, caring for them beyond the exam room. It’s our job as healthcare marketers and communicators to make these tools accessible and easy to adopt.
I think we (as an industry) are finally making headway, which is really heartening.
TRUE NORTH: ANY ADVICE FOR COLLABORATING WITH INTERNAL STAKEHOLDERS WHILE DEVELOPING THE TELEHEALTH MARKETING PLAN?
Tuson: Breaking down silos is always a challenge, but throughout the pandemic there has been a genuine sense of togetherness and unity on so many levels. My word of advice: try to embrace that unity. Offer some vulnerability as you work to improve cross-functional collaboration. I am a huge proponent of cross-functional strategy and execution, but not all teams are built equal. So I think one of the biggest things you can do for yourself as a manager is to recognize which teams are more open to collaboration and focus there.
The other major piece of advice is to come prepared with supporting data if you plan to make a recommendation. We all know data works well in this industry. Metrics that demonstrate the value and impact of marketing are something I always have handy!
And finally, take the time to listen. Those that work in the clinical practices have a wealth of information—they have a pulse on the patient that we just don’t have—listening to those valuable nuggets of information offers a win-win for everyone.
If you find yourself struggling on how to kick off a cross-functional team or project, take a moment to pause and ask questions. Getting to know everyone’s strengths and what each person brings to the table is a great place to start.
I’m always happy to work with someone who is excited about what we do. A really simple way to engage with folks who are interested in marketing is to host some sort of open forum or webinar. I started hosting “Marketing Office Hours” and we invite stakeholders from across the organization. This has really helped us build relationships and demonstrate the value of marketing. It also teaches some of the common tactics and the thinking behind the strategies that we deploy. Overtime, as you give people a peak behind the curtain, you’ll find that you’re spending a lot less time explaining yourself.
I’ve also found that some functions don’t realize marketing is responsible for growing the institution and the business. It’s important to share those growth metrics and give credit to those who helped you launch that landing page or who helped you create that report so they can feel like they are equal contributors to the growth.
Once you do some great work together, you’ll eventually get the attention of others who may have resisted initially. Ultimately, everyone wants to be part of a win. So my primary recommendation is to find those colleagues who are open-minded and focus your energy on doing good work together. Eventually, you’ll create enough FOMO [fear of missing out].
TRUE NORTH: ARE YOU GETTING PATIENTS/CONSUMERS INVOLVED IN DESIGNING NEW SYSTEMS AND PROCESSES AND IF SO, HOW?
Tuson: I love a good focus group but unfortunately, the current environment is not very conducive to them. However, we have reviewed learnings from recent focus groups to see what insights we can gather from those now that we have a whole new lens and entirely new patient experience to consider.
When designing new systems, I suggest marketers start by looking back. Prior consumer research studies are the best place to start since so much has changed in our world. Surveys are also a great tool that can help you gather patient perspectives and easier to deploy in this current environment. A lot of marketers believe that surveys are a huge undertaking but a small, thoughtfully curated set of questions can be created in-house. There are so many great survey platforms that smaller practices can take advantage of. The key to creating any good patient survey is to avoid leading the witness, a surprisingly common (and all too frequent) mistake made by marketers and non-marketers alike.
You can also develop a board consisting of patient advocates. We’ve all been a patient at one point so finding participants who are willing to improve the patient experience isn’t a huge undertaking. Most practices can find a handful of willing participants. Google My Business reviews, Healthgrades and other review aggregation tools can also be a good resource for gathering patient perspective with minimal resources. Every couple of weeks, I read patient reviews to see how we are doing across various service lines.
Patients can offer some great perspectives and help you see things from the other side. We use every tool we have and I would encourage any healthcare marketer to do the same.
TRUE NORTH: ANY FINAL ADVICE FOR PEERS ON THE DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION JOURNEY?
Tuson: 1) Don’t overcomplicate things! I cannot stress this enough.
For example, don’t call patients “consumers” as most physicians don’t view patients as consumers, so steer clear of jargon.
2) ALWAYS put on your patient hat. Find the lowest-hanging fruit in your marketing funnel that seems inconsistent with a positive patient experience and start there. If we all start putting ourselves into the patient’s shoes, we can do a much better job at improving their experience—that is a goal that everyone can agree on.
3) Don’t go after the biggest, hardest project first. There are many easy, small wins that can add up quickly and help you meet your overall objectives with a lot less resistance. Starting too big can ultimately lead to a lot of frustration and burnout. Plus, you can share metrics on your wins and after demonstrating success using data, your next few projects will likely be met with a bit less resistence. I think this is particularly true as we all undergo a digital transformation—there is so much to be done.
4) Don’t lose site of the bigger picture, but don’t let it distract you from what is right in front of you. I tend to look 20 miles down the road (which can be overwhelming at times) and I do like to start strategizing early. But I’ve found that by inching towards the end result while remaining focused on easier, more immediate projects, I feel accomplished along the way—especially when tackling some large projects that will take more time. That approach keeps me motivated.
A common mantra you’ll hear me say to my team is, “All we need to do is get five yards. In no time, we’ll have a first down.” Setting some perspective and celebrating those milestones makes a big difference.
5) Reporting, reporting, reporting. I like to report on milestones and wins throughout the process, especially when working on large projects. This gives everyone a feeling that we are making progress. When it comes to campaigns, be sure to share the good with the bad. It’s from our failures that we learn the most, and those insights are worth sharing. Explain what you’ve learned and how you’re adjusting your strategy. And when it comes to reporting out on telemedicine and the digital transformation efforts, be sure to give credit where credit is due. Telemedicine is heavily reliant on cross-functional partnerships and internal stakeholders. Delivering care in this new way is dependent on all of us working together—and together we can all have a hand at transforming the patient care experience!
Connect with Kaitlyn on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kaitlyn-tuson-nycmarketer/
Coming Soon! Kaitlyn is launching a healthcare marketing podcast in August called Market Health Pod. The show is designed to create a community where healthcare marketers can share best practices, lessons learned and more. Check https://mkthlth.com for updates and follow @MarketHealthPod on Twitter.
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