a creative agency that takes care of healthcare brands
Dr Candice O’Sullivan
29 Jul, 2020

We’re all learning a lot these days about what’s essential and what’s not – and how decisions that were once black and white can quickly turn grey in the context of Covid: Should I keep this appointment? Can I put this off until after the pandemic? Do I really need to see someone about this?

Healthcare practices are not immune to this rhetoric, as people try to heed the call to put ‘life on pause’ while life (inevitably) continues to happen. Health concerns don’t just go away during a pandemic, but priorities do shift. For most of us, it’s no longer clear if that ‘niggle’ qualifies as an essential reason to leave the house (‘Is it really okay for me to see a physio right now?’) or if we should dispense entirely with once-routine health practices (‘Dan says I shouldn’t go and get my teeth cleaned but today’s newspaper says poor dental hygiene increases the risk of stomach cancer.’).

Bartering has become commonplace:

  • ‘I’ll postpone my dental hygiene appointment but I should still get my flu shot.’
  • ‘I’ll take dad to get his blood pressure checked but I won’t book my eye check just yet.’
  • ‘I’ll cancel that skin clinic referral (that spot’s probably nothing) but I really need to get my neck seen to if I’m going to keep working from home.’

These trade-offs are not as simple as they sound. People worry about whether they’ve made the right decision (‘What if that spot really is something?’). Constantly ‘putting it off’ soon tests even the steeliest of nerves and sows seeds of doubt (‘How long do I wait before this becomes a real problem?’). Meanwhile, angst builds as the backlog of ‘things to do’ grows (‘It’s going to take months to get another appointment’).

In a way, it’s ironic. Frontline healthcare services have taken centre stage during this pandemic as hospitals adopt war-time operations and politicians endear the public with military metaphors. Paradoxically, the humble and usually over-run ‘High St’ practice has found itself fighting for survival, as Government imposes bans on whole categories of care and patients cancel appointments, too fearful to leave the house. So how can these more discretionary health services – specialist private practices and allied health clinics – see their business through to the other side of this pandemic and ensure patients keep attending to their health needs (within the bounds of whatever restrictions are being imposed at the time)?

Having helped a number of practices navigate their way through the last few months, we’ve seen a range of responses to changing circumstances – from ‘shut up shop’ to ‘let’s do what we can’. The latter has required flexibility and often a little ingenuity but has ultimately been more successful in retaining revenue streams and building goodwill with patients. So what has that approach involved?

1.Frequent updates about the provider’s capacity to keep delivering services

It sounds too obvious, right? Let your patients know you’re open for business and you’ve implemented ‘Covid safe’ practices. But you’d be surprised how many providers have overlooked this simple communication. Right now, nothing seems certain. Patients need to understand if you are still open, what circumstances make a face-to-face visit okay, if you have Covid-19 precautions in place, whether you offer telehealth alternatives, and if the services you are offering align with current restrictions. And they shouldn’t have to go hunting for this information, either. It should be on the front page of your website, in email communiques, and on social streams.

Back in March when the first wave was at its height, I rang my pilates clinic to understand what precautions had been put in place to minimise viral transmission via shared equipment. My partner is a consultant in a public hospital and sees dozens of patients each day, so I don’t take the risk of exposure lightly. Despite my genuine concern, the receptionist gave a very laissez faire answer about equipment being cleaned down at the end of each day (not between classes!) with no mention of social distancing, temperature checks, masks or limited class sizes. In fact, she made me feel silly for asking. I was left with zero confidence that the clinic was taking measures to protect its staff and patients. As a result, I postponed my weekly appointment until further notice and still have a bad taste in my mouth about a provider I’d otherwise been happy with and loyal to for the last 18 months.

It’s a good reminder that all patient-facing staff – even non-clinical personnel – need to be well-informed about policies and procedures given the current climate and understand the importance of updating and reassuring patients accordingly.

2. Resourcefulness and a willingness to pivot

If you can’t do things the way you normally would, find a different way. In the case of my pilates clinic, I would have been very happy to continue paying to attend my weekly session via Zoom instead. However, it wasn’t offered even when I requested it as a possibility. Despite been given a second opportunity to secure my custom, the clinic’s insistence on proceeding as normal failed both them and me. On the other hand, many other practices have maintained their patient base by adopting virtual consults, Zoom classes, phone chats and the like. One health gym moved all its equipment outside at one point, so members could keep exercising in groups of ten, while another rented out all its equipment, rehousing it in members’ homes.

3. A focus on localisation and community

People are not straying far from home right now. If they are going out and about, they want to stay within the bounds of their suburb, and this is coupled with a desire to support businesses in one’s local community. For those who usually attend health appointments close to work, the pandemic has presented an opportunity to become more familiar with providers in their own neighbourhood. Some practices have made the most of this by investing in media that can be easily accessed and consumed at home, e.g. mailbox drops (flyers, postcard offers), adverts in local newspapers, social media advertising and email campaigns (and for those with bigger budgets, TV and magazine advertising). Rather than ‘going quiet’, some providers have become more vocal than ever, just within a well-defined geographic territory.

4. A willingness to help, be kind and share

A lot has been said about brand behaviour during this pandemic – rarely have brands been judged so harshly for their actions. Generally speaking, the brands that have performed well are those that have made genuine efforts to help and have found ways to align this intent with their usual brand purpose/offering. For example, Shane Warne won a whole new generation of fans (and won back many more) when he turned his gin factory into a hand sanitiser plant for a Perth hospital. And the iconic fashion retailer Cue leveraged its local manufacturing capability by producing personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline workers at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. These pragmatic pivots produced fast, tangible outcomes where they were needed. They didn’t aim to save the world – they just tried to make a small but real difference where they could.

You may wonder how healthcare practices can compete with these kinds of acts but in fact, healthcare providers are well positioned to help. Your wealth of knowledge is eminently shareable and right now, people need and want to hear from trusted experts. In this regard, there has never been a better time to use email and social media to keep patients updated, informed and reassured. Sharing healthcare tips and information in bite-sized pieces that people can consume quickly is ideal for building goodwill and brand salience. Maintaining a helpful presence in your patients’ lives now (even if it doesn’t immediately generate revenue) will pay off on the other side of this crisis in the form of long-term loyalty.

5. Enabling a sense of progress and accomplishment

Lockdown has created the ‘butterfly syndrome’; people want to come out of this enforced downtime as a better version of themselves, and one’s health and wellbeing is often a perfect place to start. If, as a practice, you can find ways for people to work on themselves at home with your help, you will retain relevance and custom. For example, IVF providers are using webinars to teach patients how to optimise their fertility. Dermatologists are running online skin tutorials. Physiotherapists are hosting 8-week virtual flexibility courses. Anything you can do to keep people moving forward and progressing represents high value right now. If you can help people emerge ‘better’ from this period, your work as a ‘carer’ will be warmly regarded.

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In no way are these five principles a panacea for current times. However, they do provide a way for healthcare providers to keep doing what they do best – providing ‘care’ in any way they can. Because right now, more than ever, we need to take care – of ourselves and each other.

Dr Candice O’Sullivan, Director of Strategy & Planning at Wellmark. You can follow Wellmark on Facebook @wellmarkcreative, Twitter @wellmark_health or Insta @wellmarkcreative.