A Practical Vision for Addressing the Crisis & Beyond in Digital Healthcare

How Digital Teams Can Immediately Make the Maximum Difference

May 5, 2020 | Mara Low

Illustration of Emergency Supplies Being Dropped via ParachuteAs the coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread rapidly across the United States, health systems are under massive strain and are struggling to meet the needs of their patients and communities as the situation continues to evolve by the day. While digital teams may not be on the dangerous frontlines of care delivery, digital plays a crucial role in getting potentially life-saving information to patients and their families and in connecting patients, families, and healthcare professionals in these challenging times.

The current crisis has created many novel and altered use cases—and we as digital practitioners have the opportunity and responsibility to respond swiftly in ways that could have a huge impact, such as:

  1. Delivering life-saving alerts and front-line communications
  2. Digital symptom triage, and testing coordination
  3. Alerting patients and families to changing visit logistics
  4. Providing easy onboarding to virtual care and telehealth as an alternative to visits
  5. Helping people separate fact from fiction with reliable up-to-date information about contagion, reinfection, and treatment
  6. Offering practical tips and advice for keeping families safe
  7. Psychological patient, family, and healthcare provider support

Below, we talk about some of the immediate steps that organizations can take in the digital space to meet this incredible challenge.

Proposed Digital Tactics for Response

Where Digital Alignment Deeply Matters

Centralizing the focus and experience of important updates on your digital properties with a rich “information hub” type experience makes it easy for patients and families to find everything they need to know about the coronavirus in one place. Ideally, this is a landing page or hub within your main website or sites (versus a unique domain) so that this content is boosted by your site’s inherent SEO domain authority and locative search value, and so it is easily found in online searches. Unfortunately, many healthcare organizations do not currently have the flexible website structures in place to provide the type of user-centric experience patients, families, and providers need in a public health crisis.

Building Coronavirus (COVID-19) Support Hub Experiences

These experiences should be designed to ease people’s fears and to inform with supportive, consumer-focused messaging in easy to understand language and formats. They should include:

  • Symptom Triage & Advice

    Give clear instructions on what do if you feel sick, when and where to get tested, and (increasingly) information on what to do after a diagnosis. This information is quickly changing and will require frequent updates. Include date stamps on updates and alerts and provide users an option to sign up to receive the latest information by email or SMS.

  • Just-in-Time Logistics

    Information about visits is often located contextually throughout digital properties—this means digital teams may have too many places to change instructions, and too much content to change. Aspects of visit logistics may need to be radically foregrounded and centralized. Updates to guidelines, hours of operations and other logistics information must be timely and easy to understand.

    Patients should be directed to a single place to access or subscribe to updates as part of their online scheduling (or phone scheduling) experience—so that they see just-in-time changes to logistics that may be needed as facilities have to pivot their approaches. (Note: Apply the Schema.org “SpecialAnnouncement” property to announcements related to COVID-19 to help users easily find life-saving updates when searching online.)

  • Support for the Shift to Telehealth

    Streamline paths to schedule an appointment, and offer supporting content aimed at encouraging and supporting use of virtual care and telehealth, along with a phone number to call when additional help is needed. Consider the primary paths people usually take to schedule an appointment (for example, through your find a doctor tool and from location pages) and be sure to include contextual calls to action for virtual appointments along primary conversion funnels.

  • Provide Practical Medical Advice

    Create a curated list of links to provide practical advice people can use to keep their families safe, including information for key audience groups such as pregnant and nursing patients, for example. With the availability of best information constantly changing, linking to third-party, trusted external resources like the CDC and WHO can be helpful. However, this content should be deprioritized in relation to health system specific information, advice and content, which is where health systems can truly add value for their patients and communities. In some cases, up-to-date information can be licensed from other sources, including some of the leading academic medical centers that are TBG clients. These supporting content areas should optimally allow for sign-up to receive links to daily updates via email or SMS.

A screen shot of the Advent Health Website

Example: Advent Health created a Conoronavirus Resource Hub, a rich microsite that provides helpful information for patients, including highlighting and providing easy access to self-assessment tools and virtual visits.

  • “Listen” to Patients & Families via Analytics

    Add analytics goals and event tracking so you can gain insight into how people are interacting with your coronavirus content online and use this information to optimize content and experiences. It may be helpful to create custom analytics data dashboards to provide your digital team with insights at-a-glance and in a format that is easily shared in meetings and presentations with your organization’s leadership.

  • Drive Fundraising Efforts

    Provide opportunities for people to support your organization’s efforts to treat patients and end the pandemic.

Chat (Symptom Triage) Has its “Must-Have” Moment

Conversational technologies like chat are extremely high value in times of crisis. Health systems across the nation have hastily deployed coronavirus risk assessment chat bots to provide first-line triage for patients and to ease their concerns and prevent capacity issues at testing and treatment centers. In less than three weeks, TBG was involved in efforts related to Microsoft, Loyal Health, Google, and other chatbots, speeding up the adoption of these technologies through the free programs and accelerated implementation timelines of the vendors—and it is worth noting that many of these technologies are likely to persist after the crisis is contained. One of TBG’s major healthcare clients had 1.89M messages sent from a Coronavirus Health Assessment Bot in just one week after deployment.

UCLA Health Chat Bot

Example: UCLA Health quickly deployed the Loyal Health Coronavirus Risk Assessment Chatbot.  

This use case exemplifies an important point about chatbots: they work best for helping people find answers to questions in highly specific use cases. Even chatbots that leverage natural language processing machine learning are limited by what the algorithms can be trained to do, and new use cases can be slow to spin up in an emergency.

Once the current crisis passes, we can only expect chat and conversational technologies to continue to be used and rise in popularity with consumers as these tools are more widely available and adopted. Health systems that can come out of this crisis with learnings from these rapidly deployed chatbots, and to move quickly into developing longer-terms strategies and integrations, will be better off for it.  Like Telemedicine, this technology that was on the cusp will come out of the crisis with a head of steam, and probably continue to surge forward in the next year.

Chatbots are complex to get right. Most of the immediate chatbot opportunities are driven by vendors who have put together some pretty good prefab COVID-19 chatbot training. However, the choices around these offerings matter—particularly in terms of how they can be modified, or alternately how they are kept centrally in line with the latest diagnostic protocols from the CDC for instance. There are choices to be made that have longer downstream consequences.

The Value of High Contrast Signaling

We need to have communication options that cut through the maze of information that is overwhelming everyone, to get crucial messages to targeted populations.

Alert bars are a great way to get people’s attention and deliver crucial updates to people who visit your website. Alert bars can be applied to your site globally, using inheritance models, to ensure the important information is seen regardless of where users enter your site, with the highest contrast to the rest of the experience. You may want to have multiple designs for alert bars to handle messages of varying levels of urgency, and you may want to allow for more than one call to action or link in the alert bar. Organizations with multiple locations in different geo-regions need an alert bar strategy that allows for global and region- or location-specific messaging. Prominence and text size matters.

Our client the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) website's alert bar, designed by TBG, draws attention while also seamlessly integrating into the overall look and feel of the page. The alert bar may be inherited globally across the site, or UMMS can create and display custom alerts in different areas of the site.

Other channels such as email and SMS text play critical role in reaching existing patients and contacts with potentially lifesaving information, such as changes to patient care and visitor guidelines, locations updates and closures, and the availability of new care offerings, like virtual medicine. These messages should be clear, concise and focused on how you are helping patients and families in this time of need.

Womens Care Email

Email is an important channel for communicating information to existing patients and caregivers about what to do if they need care, including clarifying guidelines during shelter-in-place orders and letting people know that virtual medicine is an option, like in the example above from Women's Care Florida.

Consider pausing, reducing, or updating regular marketing automation initiatives and campaigns in times of crisis, for example, around elective procedures when all of these have been cancelled. Sending irrelevant or conflicting messages can increase people’s anxiety in an already stressful situation and leave them dissatisfied with your brand. Many organizations have already paused non-essential visits (a huge hit to revenues), so this may align with general institutional policy.

Closing the Patient Logistics Loop

Health systems have had to scramble to set up new testing locations and get the word out to people who think they are sick and need to be tested. This situation highlights the need for a health system’s digital team to be able easily spin up new location pages and locations lists, and quickly make updates to hours and other key information on existing locations pages and to make sure the changes (driven by care-delivery adjustments) do not get lost in the shuffle. It also can be helpful to provide a way for people to subscribe to receive updates from their preferred facility by email or SMS, given the rapidly evolving situation.

We have found that having flexible, modular templates for locations that make use of managed, structured content and metadata fields enable these types of rapid changes on your website and help ensure up-to-date locations information displays when users search online.

Applying Schema.org metadata to locations pages helps ensure your patient care facilities appear at the top of Google and Google Maps searches, and that the most accurate and up-to-date hours and closures information appears in these places. Note: Schema.org recently rolled out a new property specific to COVID-19 Testing Centers.  You may also want to consider making updates to your Google Business listings to ensure that people are seeing up-to-date information as the situation continues to evolve. A listings management tool like Yext can drastically streamline management of locations data and metadata, especially when strategically integrated with your website and other digital properties.

BayCare Testing Locations

Example: BayCare quickly created a page to direct patients to testing centers, including standing up new, temporary locations at a nearby school. Personalizing the list of location items based on proximity to the users would provide additional value here.

Wait times for receiving test results may be long, and people will need information on what to do after receiving their results. Email and patient portals play an important role in keeping people up to date with this process, and for communicating important next steps information.

Simplify Access to Alternative Care Delivery for Patients & Families

With lockdowns in place and non-emergency procedures and treatment centers closing or modifying operations, Telemedicine offers consumers a safe and convenient alternative to an in-office doctor visit. It has quickly become the primary method for people to see a doctor as well as a primary revenue stream for health systems. Unfortunately, however, few health systems entered this crisis with well-established virtual care programs and marketing strategies.

TBG’s healthcare clients have seen 1,000% to 2,000% increases in views of telehealth pages on their websites in recent weeks. There is no question—telehealth is having its moment too; and we anticipate its prestige and popularity will be an order of magnitude higher post-pandemic.

Healthcare digital teams are having to respond to this huge surge in demand for telehealth by quickly spinning up new telehealth landing page experiences and placing contextual telehealth call outs and appointment scheduling CTAs into existing digital experiences from online doctor finders to patient portals and emails. (While also hustling to remove and replace content and experiences that are made irrelevant in the given crisis). Most telehealth systems are not home-grown, and may be locked down, or difficult to quickly improve in terms of user experience; so, the surrounding experiences are the primary areas where there are immediate opportunities for improvements.

Example: As exemplified by the Yale New Haven Video Care page, virtual care pages should make it easy to schedule an appointment and provide helpful information such as what types of issues are appropriate for remote visits, simple step-by-step instructions and downloads for associated technology, specific pricing and insurance information and FAQs on what to expect.

The majority of people who are turning to virtual care and telehealth today are doing so for the first time. It is our responsibility as digital practitioners to make their adoption of these technologies as seamless and painless as possible—and surrounding, orienting content is a must.  “Helper” videos, step-by-step instructions with screenshots for how to download and use the necessary app can help reduce the volume of calls you receive for these types of questions. Be sure to also include this information in appointment emails to patients, within patient portals and in an easily found place on your public website.

In preparation for a return to “normal” (or a new version of it), health systems should start to consider their longer-term strategies for virtual care and investment to correlate with its likely increased uptake and popularity. Adding goal and event tracking to telehealth pages, videos, call outs, etc. now allows you to better understand which content people are using most, how and where they are converting, and where they may be encountering problems.  Then, when the worst of the crisis has passed you can use this information to help inform long-term digital acquisition and access strategies for virtual care. Most content and messaging related to virtual care will need to be updated once the coronavirus pandemic has passed.  It will be important to take a step back from crisis response mode and look holistically at how to provide the best possible experiences for patients and families.

Keeping Everyone Connected—Despite the Distance

With visitor restrictions in place at hospitals around the world, patients are sick and dying alone, and not just from COVID-19. Families and loved ones are not able to be by the patients’ sides. Healthcare providers working around the clock are separated from their friends and families. They are needing to find new ways to connect and support one another.

Social media certainly serves this function, and we are lucky to have it at these times—it is a great platform for connecting with and reassuring families of both your patients and your doctors and healthcare providers in these uncertain times.

E-card applications also have a role, though they probably need to be re-imagined for the circumstance.  One solution to connect patients to their loved ones is to allow families and loved ones to digitally send messages and photos that someone inside the hospital give to the patient—using on-demand printing, for example, or systems that already exist in the hospital. Especially for the less technical, older people, or those who are too sick to use their personal electronic devices otherwise E-cards may not be seen.

Content strategies that bring people together are also powerful and needed. Sharing hope, stories from the front lines, and the meaningfulness of people’s struggles can be positively reflected to reduce alienation and build morale around the difficult tasks ahead. The institutions that do the best will take measures to be less “institutional.”

TeamLA UCLA Health

UCLA Health created #TeamLA for doctors and healthcare staff to share their experiences from the front lines. The messages and imagery are hopeful and reassuring for patients, families, and healthcare professional alike.

Analytics & User-Centric Design Drive Content Creation & Curation

Patients and families always need relevant, easy-to-understand educational content that avoids medical jargon and explains complex topics in a simple way. This need is amplified during a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, where the science is constantly changing, and misinformation abounds on the internet. The idea is not to replicate content from trusted sources like the CDC and WHO, but rather to look for ways that your health system can provide additional value specific to its patients and community.

When deciding which content will be most useful to your patients and community, pay careful attention to your analytics, including top pages, top clicks and internal search terms reports, and Google search trends.

Advice, articles, videos and interactive Q&A sessions that feature medical experts and leaders help patients and families sort fact from fiction to ease their concerns and get authoritative answers to their most pressing questions. Share this content on social media to add an authoritative voice and sense of clarity to people’s feeds.

Example: Content specific to particularly at-risk groups can provide significant value to consumers. Our client Johns Hopkins Medicine provides advice specific to pregnant and nursing woman, parents, and caregivers for the elderly.

Question and Answer (Q&A) and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) are a great way to respond to commonly asked questions and to deliver important information in an engaging way, and to decrease the volume of calls you receive. Having a web content type for question and answer sets that can be reused across your website allows you to quickly spin up new content using this format.

Content that answers specific, relevant questions and delivered in rich formats like Q&As, responsive infographics is more engaging for users as evident by the increased page views and time on site metrics we see for these types of pages across TBG’s healthcare clients. And the growing popularity of voice search makes it even more important to offer content in question and answer format using plain, colloquial language.

COVID Myth vs. Fact

John Hopkins Medicine is using their authority in the field of infectious diseases to debunk myths about the coronavirus. We noted lift in engagement metrics such as time on site and pages per visit across clients for content that uses questions and answer formats.

And responsive infographics communicate complex topics in easily understood ways.

Example: TBG developed this flexible, modular and responsive template for Johns Hopkins Medicine (JHM) to enable their team to quickly create and publish infographic content on their website.JHM’s Coronavirus Facts Infographic page received more than 1 million views in the past month.

Offer Opportunities for People to Support Life-Saving Care & Research

Academic and research based medical institutions are in a unique position to contribute to solving a public health crisis, like the one we find ourselves in today.

Bolster and support patient care and research activities by providing authoritative digital content including online articles and videos that showcase how your patient care techniques and research innovations saves lives and provide clear opportunities for people to support your organization’s efforts.

TeamLA

The UCLA Health Coronavirus page includes opportunities for people to help by donating money and supplies to help manage and end the current crisis. It features news stories related with relevant science and research.

The Enabling Technologies

Health systems that have recently gone through modern digital transformations are in the best position to respond to a crisis. Well-integrated, centralized modern tools for communicating with patients across channels (websites, apps, search, email, SMS, social) and centralized data and content repositories enable rapid responses in emergencies, as well as during normal organizational and market shifts.

The optimum set of technologies includes:

  • A customer experience delivery platform (CMSA/CX/DXP platform) for experiences and personalization (Sitecore, Acquia, Adobe, etc.)
  • A content hub (these are hard to miss—most are called “Content Hub”)
  • A marketing automation or journey orchestration platform (Marketo, Salesforce Marketing Cloud, Eloqua, etc.)
  • CRM or CDP, to keep track of customer data
  • An EMR portal (such as Epic or Cerner)
  • Analytics platform(s)

Proper integrations between the various layers, and a sophisticated practice for each layer, a requirement to get the full value out of the systems. 

But many healthcare systems are understandably not there, even if they are on a journey towards greater digital flexibility. If an organization has already invested in good digital infrastructure and alignment, there is potential for tremendous leveraging of those systems in the crisis, as described below. However, many organizations are (understandably) at an earlier level of digital maturity and will need to cobble different systems together—at which point, quickly assessing the tradeoffs between time-to-features and sustainability becomes crucial. In this crisis, leveraging entry-level systems (like HubSpot) and carefully building daily human processes to align data across systems, may be more practical than attempting to ramp up enterprise level systems and integrations on a short timeline.  Work with someone who knows the reality of these systems before you plunge into major projects—as there are great flexibility and efficiencies to be won from the right calls.

Responding to the Current Crisis—& Beyond

As experts in healthcare digital transformations, we’ve been helping our clients build the capacities that can speed the digital responses described above—but we are also helping organizations who have more limited digital infrastructure.

Contact us to find out how we can help.

We can help meet immediate needs related to coronavirus digital response for health systems and be a valuable partner as the situation continues to evolve.

There is a long-term benefit to all this emergency-driven, short-term work. As stressful as it is, the current crisis is driving a great deal of digital growth, digital expansion, and sharpening of practice. Just the surging forward of chatbot implementations and telehealth are deeply consequential. Putting these types of capabilities in place to respond to the current crisis will only strengthen digital efforts, whether for another emergency or to respond in a more agile way to normal organizational and market shifts.

About the Author

Mara
Mara Low

I am the Manager of Digital Strategy & Optimization with TBG. When I’m not crafting user experiences, you’ll  likely find me fire hula hooping, hiking, or creating up-cycled art.

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