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Communication Strategies Benefit Patients and Employees

By Matt Skoufalos

If there ever was a facility purpose-built to cater to the outpatient experience, Banner Health Center Plus at New River Trails in Glendale, Arizona, is it. The 130,000-square-foot, comprehensive health center boasts 128 exam rooms, with facilities supporting 45 providers working in 11 specialties in what is intended as a one-stop shop for non-acute care. With onsite medical imaging, laboratory services, a pharmacy, pediatric and primary care practices, surgical services and more, the health system has worked to create a single location that can consolidate a variety of typically referral-based services under one roof. At the same time, it’s also created an in-house scheduling and inter-departmental communication system that enables patients to access those services in a single day, instead of through multiple, repeat visits.

“We are receiving an overwhelming amount of positive feedback from our patients as well as referring providers regarding the culture of ‘yes.’ We are saying ‘yes’ to our patients by making same day add-on imaging exams, lab and pharmacy pick up possible,” said Michele Robbins, medical imaging manager at Banner.

That strategy – of cultivating long-term patient relationships by creating an environment that caters specifically to their needs, feelings and experiences – was carefully cultivated in response to another patient engagement modeling exercise that Banner created; namely, that of “Sofia,” a fictional character composite of the type of patient who would most benefit from the comprehensive convenience of a place like the New River Trails facility.

Conceived in conjunction with health care brand strategist firm Worrell, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, “Sofia” was “a persona developed around the ‘sandwich generation,’ who manages the health care of her children and aging loved ones,” Worrell wrote in its case study of the project.

“Sofia has a large job as the health care decision maker in her family: caring for her children, aging parents and in-laws. She balances her broad workload as a caregiver while trying to cater to each generation’s differences. She is notoriously hard on herself and doesn’t always feel like a good mother. She prioritizes the care of other generations over her own. She is short on time and money and needs creative support organizing, anticipating and simplifying her care journey,” the case study reads.

In its project notes, Worrell adds the insight that “an increasing number of organizations recognize that health care is becoming a competitive, consumer-focused business. Hospitals and clinics must offer technologies that make care access more convenient and the clinic experience more seamless.”

The experience of arriving at a portrait of “Sofia” directly resulted in the patient-centric approach employed at Banner Health Center Plus, as decision-makers within the health system began discussing the mechanics of accommodating her potential need for same-day add-on appointments, Robbins said. The solution at which they arrived was Microsoft Teams business communication software, which substitutes chat-based scheduling and communication functions for phone conversations.

“It was a decision made around workflow and how to make this seamless,” she said. “You want to be able to set expectations for the patients before they walk in the door. We communicate within our own departments, front to back, but also have multiple team group chats set up with the other specialty groups: peds, OB, ortho; their staff messages my staff, and vice-versa. We’re all communicating on the same platform, leadership and staff.”

In addition to creating a mechanism for facility-wide workflow, the secondary impact of establishing this communication network was its effect on staff, Robbins said. Individual departments came to coalesce more firmly around the idea of operating as a unified team of colleagues. In the health care space, where specialists often run the risk of being “siloed” in their individual disciplines, she discovered that more tightly integrating their scheduling operations resulted in the dissolution of those invisible barriers that can isolate their work. Instead, she said, now “there’s no idea of ‘them versus us’ ” in the workplace.

“You can feel it; it’s palpable,” Robbins said. “I’ve worked in an acute setting for most of my career and it’s not always the case. But at the end of the day, they’re all our patients if they’re in this building, and the staff really enjoys that.”

“I can see these messages going back and forth with the different departments, and it helps them get to know each other and feel like they’re on the same team,” she said. “In a lot of meetings, we’re talking about process improvement and patient satisfaction. One of the biggest dissatisfiers is being in the dark about wait times. By using Teams, my techs can message them and let them know MRI is running 20 minutes behind, and then the front desk can let patients know when they come in. It’s the little changes in the process that really make a big difference.”

Nobody at the facility is solely responsible for managing all the incoming and outgoing communication for an entire department, which means that all staffers have the added, secondary duty of effective communication among their primary tasks, making it a shared responsibility facility-wide. That’s improved not only the accommodations made to improve the patient experience, but also the quality of interactions among staff at all levels of the facility. Robbins, who’s spent 23 years in medical imaging, 18 of them in leadership, said the general effect of those changes has been to energize staff to perform to the best of their abilities while also deepening their connection to the workplace, and to each other.

“The culture here really is something that’s evolved,” she said. “We learn a lot from each other. Nobody here is more or less important than any other, no matter what their role is. I think it’s also important that we connect with each other on a human level, truly being interested in each other as people, and creating an environment of satisfaction. When we make those connections with our team members, it creates a sense of family; feeling mutual respect and appreciation for each other, no matter what your role is.”

“The idea of one team, so that everybody is on the same playing field and appreciates each other’s roles; if we can accomplish that, we’re really accomplishing something great,” Robbins said. “People are more productive, willing to help each other, appreciative, willing to come to work. When our employees are happy, our patients are happy. And that will translate across so many other different areas of our business.”

Thus far, that approach has given New Rivers the highest patient satisfaction scores of all 31 Banner imaging sites, according to reports from Medallia, its institutional customer feedback management software platform, Robbins said. Comments have centered on the convenience of seeing physicians and getting imaging studies and lab work completed on the same day, avoiding taking another day off from work. Remarks about the facility’s “short wait time,” “pleasant experience,” and “friendly employees” have created a positive public conversation that she believes will carry forward as other “Sofias” share their experiences with the health care decision-makers in their families.

For facilities that don’t have the resources or external support to profile their own “Sofia,” there are other, lower-cost methods they can leverage to generate patient and employee engagement to deliver improved results. Devon Perry, CEO of Segel Associates, a branding and communication firm in Haddonfield, New Jersey, points out that there’s a lot of fundamental work that can be done in-house before even contracting with a marketing agency.

“A lot of people know how to work within social media for personal reasons; it doesn’t mean that defining a target audience and implementing an ad strategy is something you can do, or that it’s the highest and best use of your time,” Perry said. “One of the most important things to do before engaging with an agency is to write a list of things that you need help with. Make that list exhaustive, and categorize your needs.”

Once that list of wants and needs is completed, then entities can begin the work of sourcing potential agencies. Perry recommends an approach of total transparency with prospective marketing partners, so that they can be clear on how to best match their services with the needs of the client.

“The agency doesn’t want to disappoint you, and you certainly don’t want to be disappointed,” she said. “Communicating is so hard. Be as clear as you can be before you start a conversation with an agency. Learn what your options are and make a decision as to whether you want to do all things with one agency, or if you can have the time to find the best agency in PR, social, marketing, because sometimes full-service agencies don’t do a very good job with one of those three categories. It may be better to handle something in-house rather than them underperforming.”

When contracting with a new marketing firm or trialing a new engagement strategy, Perry recommends a testing phase so that both parties can learn more about one another and ensure that they’re the best fit for the work to be done. Just as important is establishing a monthly or quarterly touchpoint to ensure that the broad strokes of the plan are being followed. Similarly, she recommends that advertising clients requesting weekly or monthly plain-language performance reports, written free of advertising jargon, to help keep the program on course.

For those facilities that may not have the budgets to outsource their engagement strategies to a third-party provider, Perry recommends a handful of simple, inexpensive approaches to increase the visibility of their businesses in their local areas of operation. Even basic social media outreach strategies can help imaging center operators establish a fundamental understanding of their markets and clientele.

“You don’t have to put all your eggs in one basket, reaching everybody,” she said. “What you need to do is identify how far a prospective patient is willing to travel to your office, and target people closest to your location. Defining your ZIP code radius, age range and other demographics will help you turn the water in a small pond as opposed to trying to fish in the ocean. One of the most liberating things is that anybody can do it.”

It’s also time-consuming, although not necessarily costly, to study what strategies are being employed by similar facilities in your area, Perry said, noting, “sometimes it’s easier to find out what you are by defining what you are not.” She also reminds decision-makers not to squander the in-house knowledge they already possess. By circulating a simple survey among people who understand the facility, its audience, and others who are “close enough to the brand, but far enough away” to offer perspective, including staffers, their friends, and family, entities can learn more about how they are seen from the outside. There’s also valuable information to be gleaned from reviewing prior marketing and branding efforts to pull out keywords, colors and thematic elements that can provide a useful reference point for moving forward.

Perry points out that the same, inward-looking exercise can yield dividends for improving internal communication, as well. She recommends using the same opportunity of reconsidering public messaging be leveraged to regard ways in which employers speak to, with and about their workers.

“Whatever any one of us produces for the public to consume, we should use the same type of diligence and strategic alignment and care when speaking to our employees,” she said. “Acknowledging the environment and affording staff the opportunity to provide feedback can help. People want to know that you genuinely care and that you’re implementing the changes to make a better workplace,” she added.

Finally, whether engaging with employees or prospective patients, Dr. Harriet Borofsky,

medical director of breast imaging and radiologist at Hackensack Meridian Health in Red Bank, New Jersey, suggests recognizing that all communication turns on establishing mutual trust. Sometimes, to connect with patient populations who are harder to reach, that means finding community members who already have the trust of their audiences, and establishing meaningful relationships with them. When Borofsky needed to reach ethnic audiences and communities of color to notify them about breast health and mammography, she forged connections with community and religious groups, women’s groups and even high-school audiences to make inroads.

“Affluent, educated women come in [for breast health screenings],” Borofsky said. “We’ve got to reach other women who have some obstacles to coming in. We’ve got to break down some of those barriers and have foundation support for women who are uninsured or underinsured. If you’re worried about putting food on the table for your children, it’s going to seem way less important to have a mammogram.”

“If you can get one woman in, and she can bring a friend, women are networkers,” who will spread that positive message.

Once she’s gained the attention of her audience, Borofsky said she also designs her messaging to be clear, concise and to address concerns up-front. Given her expertise in breast health, she often speaks on patient risk factors, the value of screening and early detection to better health outcomes, and the variety of treatment options that exist beyond radical surgeries or radiation therapy. And once she has earned the trust of those she’s seeking to reach, Borofsky said it can become a lifelong relationship.

“As a physician, the greatest impact I have is the one-on-one,” Borofsky said. “In the office, I am hopefully establishing a relationship of mutual trust that has a follow-up. I really have known some patients for 26 years that are very beloved to me.”

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