COVID-19

After COVID-19, What Next? A Recovery Blueprint for Health System Leaders

By JAMES GARDNER

Is the beginning of the end in sight? Perhaps. After much stress and strain, many experts believe we’re seeing early signs of a COVID-19 plateau in some states and cities. Everything could change tomorrow, but healthcare leaders should be preparing now to reopen their shuttered operating rooms and get back to business. 

When restrictions loosen, lost days and weeks could have dire implications for health systems already weakened by months of deferred and canceled elective procedures. These surgeries — joint replacements, tumor biopsies, gallbladder removals, and cosmetic procedures, for instance — underpin the economics of hospitals and physician groups. Delay some of these surgeries for too long and patient care can also suffer. Essential? Absolutely.

Unfortunately, healthcare leaders will be reopening their doors to a world unlike anything they’ve seen before. Aren’t we all seeing our personal health through a new lens?

  • High levels of public anxiety about employment and health
  • Widespread concerns about copayments and private insurance coverage due to layoffs and furloughs
  • Continuing reports of pharmaceutical and medical supply shortages
  • Unprecedented adoption of telemedicine, especially for primary care
  • Many hospital brands tarnished by staff layoffs, pay cuts, and safety issues
  • Worrisome forecasts of COVID-19 “part 2” coming this summer or fall

Revive Health’s recent research confirms this new reality: over 60% of consumers they surveyed will have concerns about seeking medical care after current COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and almost a third will seek care only if they have a serious health issue.

For leaders of already bruised health systems, this is both an existential threat and a game-changing opportunity. Struggle to quickly figure out the challenges of the next 6-12 months and you’ll be weakened and perhaps even pushed into insolvency. Navigate them successfully and you’ll emerge strong and ready to compete. 

Tenet Healthcare’s CEO, Ron Rittenmeyer, understands this. “We believe strongly that we will be able to gear up as soon as we are released to do that, and we will hit the ground running,” he noted in an early April earnings call. Pennsylvania’s UPMC isn’t wasting any time, either. They’re coaching their surgeons on how to accelerate elective procedures even while a state ban is in place.

“Ensuring a flawless reopening, being the first to start doing procedures, and respecting the new normal will be critical in the months to come.” – John Berg, hospital marketing veteran

“Many providers are talking about getting back to normal. I think it may be better for us to think of this as a complete reset. Perceptions and loyalties probably have changed. The market landscape has definitely changed. Ensuring a flawless reopening, being the first to start doing procedures, and respecting the new normal will be critical in the months to come,” says John Berg, a hospital marketing veteran.

What’s going to get your health system back in business once restrictions are relaxed? 

  1. Start planning now so you’re able to move when your local conditions allow it. Every day and week will matter as less anxious consumers satisfy pent up demand for procedures. Remember, we could see a COVID-19 resurgence in the summer or fall so time is of the essence. And, don’t let your thinking get caught up in personal emotions, media rumors, or political beliefs. Your competitors are planning to reopen as soon as they possibly can and you should be too.
  2. Form a cross-functional team with CxO engagement and support. With line of sight to the CEO and board, this group will be tasked with leading the organization back into the elective procedure business. “Having a reopening planning team that includes operations, medical staff, business development, marketing and others should be a definite priority for hospitals right now,” agrees Berg. What’s your state and local process for restarting inpatient and outpatient procedures? How ready are you to restart and what are the internal and external bottlenecks? What’s your service line prioritization and sequencing strategy? Are your referring clinicians on board with your plan? Who needs to be brought back from furlough? How will you quickly scale and what will limit you?
  3. Refresh and double down on your telehealth strategy. Teleheath’s the rare health technology idea that’s a 3-way win for patients, providers, and payors. It’s proven itself effective during the COVID-19 crisis and will be the care model of choice for many patients going forward. How will you make it more than a side-effort at your health system?  
  4. Resist a return to “marketing as usual.” It’ll be tempting to go all-in on paid search and other short-fuse marketing tactics, but they can’t be 100% of your plan. At worst, they’ll feel tone-deaf and crass. Balance them, instead, with more nuanced outreach that recognizes the public’s anxious state of mind, rebuilds damaged trust, and starts (or restarts) a potentially complex journey to care. Content marketing with thought leadership, virtual patient support groups, and remote access to your clinicians could all be powerful tools. In parallel, of course, don’t overlook gently reactivating your deferred procedures, mining your CRM database, winning over high-volume referrers, and targeting your slow-moving rivals’ patients. 
  5. Turn today’s crisis into tomorrow’s strategic refresh. Don’t let 2020’s events fade away without them sparking a clean slate rethink of your organization’s structure, leadership, culture, workflows, and incentives. Nobody will be surprised about the impetus for change and you’ll end up better aligned with the world’s new realities.

The time is now for urgent post-pandemic planning by America’s clinics and health systems. Overlooked or done poorly, there’s a high risk of continued turmoil, missed goals — and worse. Done right, most should be able to find a feasible path back to financial and organizational stability. 

James Gardner is a digital sales and marketing leader with 20 years of B2C and B2B experience. This post originally appeared on LinkedIn here.

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