The COVID pandemic accelerated a longstanding issue within the healthcare industry: balancing labor shortages with increasing patient volume.
While market disruptors such as Telehealth and other retail clinics provide communities with more care options, they also drive higher staffing demands on an already small pool of candidates. Not only that, but many doctors and nurses are choosing to retire early or leave their professions altogether.
I recently interviewed Alan Shoebridge, the Chief Communications Officer for Providence Oregon, a Healthcare Success podcast veteran, and my longtime friend to discuss several healthcare market disruptions caused by the COVID pandemic.
In the podcast, he shares valuable insights about how hospitals and health systems are coping with these changes, pivoting to meet the changing needs of the healthcare consumer, and building more transparent communication strategies for internal and external audiences.
In case you don’t have time to listen to the podcast, here’s a summary:
As much as people want the COVID pandemic to be over, we now face the harsh reality that COVID is endemic, meaning it’s with us all the time.
"Even though COVID's in a much better place in terms of serious impact, it's still here, making it impossible for [healthcare] systems to recover," Alan explains. "We keep feeling like we're going to get over it, and another challenge emerges. That's created a really hard cycle to work through."
We discussed our personal experiences with COVID and how it impacted our short- and long-term health.
Alan shared, "It was probably three weeks before I felt normal again." Fortunately, he does not think he'll struggle with long-term symptoms but added that an estimated seven million people are struggling with long COVID (e.g., fatigue and brain fog) in the United States alone. He believes it will significantly impact productivity and healthcare for quite some time.
Many people, including some prominent people who should know better, mistakenly believe COVID is a scam or overstated in order to make hospitals rich. With more than 20 years of experience working in the hospital space, I asked Alan to share his informed viewpoint on the economic impact COVID has had on health systems.
“I guarantee most hospitals and healthcare systems are not getting rich. In fact, they're struggling right now, even with Cares funding and other things that try to make hospitals and healthcare systems as solvent as possible.”
COVID has significantly increased labor costs. When a hospital or multilocation practice experiences a staffing shortage due to illness, like COVID, you're often required to hire temporary labor, like traveling nurses, which can come with a much higher price tag that impacts your bottom line.
Hospitals and health systems, like Providence, Oregon, encourage people to get preventive screenings and care to alleviate long-term strain on the health system. Alan reaffirms, "If you could prevent a hospitalization by getting a vaccine or booster, we want you to do that."
Not only that, but healthcare professionals are eager to get back on track with elective procedures. Unfortunately, many continue to struggle with significant labor shortages. Some hospitals and health systems have a year's worth of backlog cases on elective, but potentially life-saving, procedures, like colonoscopies. Worse, COVID only exacerbates the consumer tendency to put off important - but not seemingly urgent - healthcare procedures.
As Chief Communications Officer, Alan’s primary objectives during the height of the pandemic included understanding how COVID was impacting his local community, establishing a leadership position within his community, and communicating safety guidelines to staff, patients, and their families.
Now, as COVID cases continue to rise and fall, he focuses on disseminating information from CDC and other agencies about how people can best protect themselves from illness. “It’s reinforcing the steps you can take when new things happen, like when the booster or the children's vaccine became available.”
Early in the pandemic, Healthcare Success wrote about the importance of taking a leadership role in your community, not just for branding, but to establish yourself as a trusted resource during an unsettling and sometimes fearful time.
Both Alan and I have covered COVID-related topics on our blogs. Here are a few key posts if you’d like to explore further:
For this part of our discussion, I wanted Alan to share his experience with labor shortages and how they’ve impacted his marketing plans. Alan shares that "[labor] has always been a problem. There just aren't enough entering the field every year to meet the needs."
He adds that thanks to COVID, "the workforce has been stretched really thin.” People are retiring early, dealing with burnout, and removing themselves from rotation due to COVID illness.
The introduction of market disruptors, like Telehealth and Minute Clinics, are also shifting providers (and patients) away from hospitals and medical practices at an accelerated pace.
As you can imagine, labor retention strategies continue to be an essential marketing ingredient as we labor through the third year of COVID.
"You don't want to lose your best people." Early in the pandemic, Alan focused on increased and transparent communication strategies to reach more people. “We leveraged a lot more video, shared our podcast internally, and took down barriers between what's considered internal vs. external communications." He prioritized internal communications to maintain employee confidence and created similar messages for the community once everyone was briefed internally.
About six months into the pandemic, he decided to survey employees to learn how they felt about the ongoing communications from leadership. He shared that approximately "85% said what they've heard and seen from their leaders made them feel more confident.” He was relieved to learn that and says, “if they feel things are being taken seriously, they're more likely to stay, meaning retention will be higher."
Alan and his marketing team also encourage managers and directors to connect with their teams regularly, listen to their concerns, and take those learnings to leadership. Not only does this strengthen teams and improve communications, but it also helps with job satisfaction and retention.
The COVID pandemic was a driving force behind many technological advances in the healthcare industry, especially for how patients access care. I think it's fair to say it forced many healthcare brands to accept technologies they'd previously resisted, like online appointment booking and Telehealth services, and secure doctor-to-patient email and text communications.
Today's healthcare consumers want convenient access to affordable care options.
Alan shared his thoughts on what's irrevocably changed and what will continue to change in the future.
He cautioned, "as we're developing more ways to connect with people, you can spread your efforts really thin." He explains how important it is to target the right people and invest in technologies with the most impact—rather than investing in all of them at once.
He says, "marketing communications leaders need to ensure they're at the table when new things are designed and when decisions are made to prioritize what gets promoted and how."
Alan believes it's more important than ever for marketers to be in that conversation "because we're dealing with limited resources (budgets). As our systems struggle with bringing in revenue, that means there's less for marketing and communication efforts. So you're going to have to get smarter about it."
Marketing effectively to healthcare consumers will always be challenging. Though there may be fewer competitors, there are also savvier marketers—and you've got to be among them. One of the best ways to do that is to understand which technologies your audience wants and prioritize them.
I want to thank Alan again for sharing his time and experiences with us. I hope it's provided you with new and valuable insights into the impact COVID has had on the healthcare industry.
For a more in-depth look at this topic, I highly recommend reading the blog posts linked above and listening to our podcast in its entirety.