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7 Principles to Guide Health Care Strategists Through COVID Chaos and Beyond
Regional Medical Center has established patients, accountability and a digital-first mindset as part of its North Star

When crises hit in health care, typically well-laid marketing plans are pushed aside in favor of addressing the most pressing strategies and communications.

Oftentimes, hospital leaders fall back on rigid rules when confronted with chaos, noted Carol Koenecke-Grant, principle, CKG Consulting and former vice president of strategy and marketing for Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg, South Carolina. She urges her peers, to instill a defined set of principles that can carry a marketing and communications team through difficult times while continually remaining focused on the patient.

“It is chaos in our organizations. So, how do we, as marketers, lead strategic discussions and keep ourselves focused?” she asked. “This pandemic is not something that any of us prepared for. When we think about our “true North” and how we are going to stick to that strategic message, we have to focus on principles.”

Absent a clear guiding light, health care invariably leans on rules-based decision making when faced with a challenge. Koenecke-Grant reflects on patients during the pandemic who were in end-of-life situations and wanted to be with their families, but could not because of strict adherence to hospital policies. 

“People can become very rigid in their decision making during a crisis,” she said. “In an emergency, sometimes decision making will focus more so on self-protection rather than being patient-focused,” she added. “In times of crisis, we often revert to what we’re used to and what we are comfortable with.”

7 Guiding Principles
Koenecke-Grant—a former Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development (SHSMD) board member—and Brian Q. Davis, executive vice president of consultancy for Scorpion Healthcare, recently explored seven guiding principles to aid peers with these issues during a SHSMD workshop. While oriented around COVID-19 and 2021’s challenges, experts believe these ideologies are simple and universal enough to remain relevant regardless of the day’s reality.

“COVID-19 amplifies these issues, but I’ll have you consider that this applies in non-COVID times, too,” said Davis, who co-led the presentation. “War time, peace time, it doesn’t matter. In both cases, when you have them in place, you’re going to produce more innovation, more speed, more results and more impact.”

Here's a quick look at the principles:

  1. Serve the patient first: Everything health care marketers and strategists do should be held up against this notion. Seek to reduce uncertainty for the patient and understand the community’s needs, especially their digital desires, which should always be prioritized over organizational requests.
  2. Go where the patient is: It is health care’s duty to serve the community with knowledge, stories and insights. Wherever patients’ attention is, hospitals must be there too, all while proactively broadcasting in service to their communities.
  3. Digital presence is a strategy, not a tactic: How a hospital holds itself out to the community digitally should tie back to its mission, vision and values. Digital presence must be seen as a strategic asset in the service of consumers. “The traditional marketing methods will never evaporate, but if you consider how you frame your organization, this is your brand. This is perception. This is how you communicate to the patient and community everything about who and what you are,” Koenecke-Grant said.
  4. The digital front door is now the front door: All pathways that connect online must be treated with the same level of respect and focus as the hospital’s physical site. Choices must be made with intention, and the website cannot be treated as an impossible-to-navigate filing cabinet of information. “The easiest way to frame this: we must treat our representation online with the same level of intention and respect as we would our lobby,” Davis said, quoting an unnamed CEO client.
  5. Meet the patient at the intersection of need and access: Health care leaders must meet the patient where they are, when they’re in need. This is no different than building an urgent care clinic on a key strategic intersection. “It’s about when they look, they find. If they’re looking and not finding you, that’s a disservice,” he said.
  6. Be accountable: Marketers must make metrics and data easily available in real time and oriented around return on investment. Even if it’s not hard ROI, leaders should have some sense around what they’re trying to impact and revenue should be an important part of the conversation.
  7. Stay nimble and fast: Health care marketers must take into consideration their operational readiness relative to their digital presence. COVID created a level of urgency to make changes that exposed the nature of many technology and service arrangements (both internal and external). If legacy arrangements are not set up to support a nimble view of digital marketing execution, they should be examined, experts noted. “These principles are simple, but feel as if they’re universal,” Davis said. “The power of the simplicity is, it becomes a tool you can use to outframe any other type of influences that want to take you out of alignment with these truths.”

In Motion
As one example of these principles in motion, Koenecke-Grant recalled earlier days of the pandemic as Regional Medical Center struggled getting patients to come in for elective surgeries or routine checkups. It is located in a rural part of South Carolina as the sole provider in between Charleston and Columbia, with patients forced to travel an hour-plus either way for care. “When the crisis hit and people in rural areas were afraid to come in, staff had to figure out ways to reach out to them,” she said.

Prior to the pandemic, many rural organizations had been dabbling in telehealth. But many people needing care were in far-flung geographies with no access to a computer, smartphone or the internet.

While conversing with the Orangeburg County School District leadership, Regional Medical Center CEO Charles William realized the two were grappling with the same issues. This eventually led to school officials providing students grades K-12 with laptops for e-learning, and Regional Medical Center piggybacking on top of the program to treat students and family members through those same computers.

Those involved were able to quickly set up the students’ family’s medical access to resources in Regional Medical Center’s Telehealth program, which might have taken much longer to implement in regular times. Koenecke-Grant said the effort has been a wild success and a blueprint for how strategists should operate when guided by these patient-first principles.

“The pressure and the urgency of COVID in many cases got people out of their heads for a moment,” Davis said. “Reorienting to another focus many times created this pressure cooker that leads to innovation and this partnership was a prime example. It was clearly focused on the patient and the community and was greatly accelerated by this scenario.”


This article features interviews with: 

Carol Koenecke-Grant
Principle, CKG Consulting
Former Vice President, Strategy & Marketing
Regional Medical Center
Orangeburg, South Carolina 

Brian Q. Davis
Executive Vice President
Scorpion Healthcare
Addison, Texas

Image credits: denis kalinichenko/ | insta_photos/


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