The essential nature of hospitals has been reinforced through the pandemic, even as methods of care delivery have changed. Though fine-tuning is needed in this next phase of healthcare, provider organizations must do so by focusing more on patient needs and preferences and the organization’s mission than on “what we’ve always done” or the business side of healthcare.
David Jarrard, President of Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock, discusses what has changed and what has held steady for the healthcare industry, questions for leaders to ask as they guide their organizations forward, and perspective for marketing and communications professionals to help establish an environment ready for change.
David has spent more than 25 years offering strategic counsel to America’s leading health systems and providers. He is a visionary leader, author, respected national thought leader, and former journalist.
Chartis: Set the stage for us. As the new year begins, how has the healthcare landscape changed?
In some ways it’s changed dramatically because the global healthcare crisis has affected how people have accessed and used care and, maybe most importantly, thought about care. When we look at how people absorb health information and who they trust for that information and how they balance risk, it’s clear they’re thinking about health in a much more assertive, visible way than they were 36 months ago.
Another change has been in the delivery of care. There’s been a partial vacuum formed through the way acute care facilities provide care, which has opened the door for new entrants. We’ve seen aggressive investment from private equity-backed non-acute providers, along with traditional providers trying new things and finding them successful.
So, in some ways there’s been a lot of change. But in other ways, hospital systems are still hospital systems. They still have big brands. They still have the footprints and the bricks and mortar, and they still own significant market share.
Chartis: Talk a bit more about that shift in how people are thinking about healthcare. What does that mean for providers looking ahead?
The increased focus on healthcare is creating opportunity and risk for hospitals. The pandemic has broadly reinforced the essential nature of hospitals. Whatever discussions were taking place previously about sites of care and whether sustaining acute care should be a critical policy and funding priority, the pandemic made clear that the answer is, “Yes.”
We also saw the enormous admiration and support for caregivers. Our research shows that doctors and nurses were — and remain — extraordinarily trusted. That’s as it should be.
The risk is that their essential value and the great respect people have for healthcare workers doesn’t necessary translate into the big business operations of a hospital or health system. People need hospitals and trust caregivers. But we also know that there’s some skepticism about whether hospitals truly prioritize the mission over their business. So, it would be a mistake in 2022 for hospital operators to think that the love for nurses and physicians automatically equates to support for their organization and how they approach the business of healthcare. In fact, we see a widening gap between care delivery and care operations, and we expect media, labor, payers, and regulators to try and sharpen the contrast in 2022 for their benefit.
Chartis: When it comes to the ways providers have adjusted to the pandemic operationally, do you expect those changes to stabilize, expand, or revert?
It’s a real question whether providers are going to pull back to their old ways or continue to take advantage of the changes that have proven to be successful. Those include telehealth and hospital at home, of course, plus changes they’ve made to delivery of care in their own facilities. Each of these advancements have helped accelerate the patient experience, giving people more options for receiving care and, in many cases, making the process of receiving care more comfortable and more in line with consumer interactions outside healthcare.
We are at risk of reverting. Not in every case, but generally what I'm seeing is that healthcare systems really stretched during the pandemic and expanded in useful ways. Now, as we’re seeing with telehealth, some of that has contracted. So is that a function of, cynically, getting back to where the money is and going back to old patterns because “that’s what we’ve always done”? Or are providers fine-tuning these changes to the right level to best serve patients?
The concern is that the big, established providers won’t take advantage of the opportunity to do transformative work. They may decide that what has worked continues to work instead of taking some risks and reshaping delivery of care.
So, can we solidify positive advances and build on them? Because we’re at a moment when there’s permission to change.
Chartis: What’s the mindset for executives as they plan for the future and hopefully work to reshape care delivery?
Health systems need to ask themselves “What’s our story?” And “What’s our mission?” It’s important to consider whether that mission is defined by structure — the service lines, the facilities, the equipment — or by purpose. As health systems, are we trying to protect those things, and are we driving towards trying to maintain the structure? Or is our story not just about outstanding delivery of care but actual improvement in the experience and the health and wellness of the people that we serve?
If it’s the latter, then we’re able to put aside some things that we’ve held onto for a long time. They served us well, now it’s time to do something different for the good of our patients and our employees.
Chartis: What’s the role of communications in all of this?
The opportunity for communicators is to capture that story in a way that’s so compelling that we create an environment that allows change to happen. It’s more than just defining a couple of talking points and repeating them over and over. It’s environmental work. It creates support and safety and understanding for change to occur.
Then, underneath that, we can begin to redefine what it means to deliver care. And people can see their role as a nurse, a board member, or care navigator because everyone can see how they fit into the new environment that’s been created.
It’s a huge job, and I hope we see a continuation of the high-profile marketing and communications leaders have had during the pandemic. We heard from so many of our clients who found themselves at the executive table — where they hadn’t been before — because of this unique event. These leaders were then able to shape the communications around what was being done, which in turn had a hugely positive effect on the work itself. Thinking about the story that needed to be told helped teams find the right way to operationalize it. I hope that through this work these marcom leaders stay at the table.
Chartis: Let’s flip the question to focus on executives’ perspective. If a leadership team is looking at the organization’s communications and the comms team, what should it be looking for? What questions should it be asking?
Ask about alignment and purpose. Are all the ways that we communicate aligned and working together? Are our communications converging so that our physician relationships and communications are aligned with our political relationships and communications with our labor and our managed care and our board member communications? All of us have to recognize that communications need to be holistic across an organization because all those pieces are more connected today than ever before.
And then leadership teams should be asking whether the organization is aligned on that clear story and purpose. Ask, “What’s The Thing? What’s the win we’re driving towards?” Hospitals have been coming under increasing scrutiny recently, and that spotlight is going to get even brighter. Providers need to be aligned and willing to tell a compelling, vulnerable story to all of their audiences.
What’s great is that finding alignment on the communications and story pushes us to look at alignment in other areas — like operations or workforce. If we’re focusing on communicating about our mission, then we’re forced to ask questions others would ask, and that process of alignment becomes an internal pressure test. It can reveal problems or discrepancies or bad organizational habits that can then be corrected.
Forces for Change is an annual trend outlook report from The Chartis Group focused on defining the forces shaping healthcare today and outlining what health systems can do to prepare for what’s next.
© 2023 The Chartis Group, LLC. All rights reserved. This content draws on the research and experience of Chartis consultants and other sources. It is for general information purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional advisors.