A conversation from the digital frontlines of COVID-19 response

What was your customer’s challenge, and how was it affecting the people in their organization?

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare industry has seen a rapid shift in patients’ needs and expectations and a huge surge in demand for those on the front lines. There are tremendous demands on healthcare systems right now, and our customer is feeling the stress from an operational perspective as the industry is being forced to close non-essential services and make the shift from face-to-face care to telemedicine and video visits. As the virus spread and started appearing closer to home, it was inevitable that society would start to become anxious and worried; asking themselves: Do they have the symptoms? Do they not? If they do, where can they get tested? Where and how will they get treatment?

Our customer, one of the largest health systems in the world, needed to answer these questions as quickly as possible – both to inform and take care of their patients and to help alleviate some of the burden on their clinics and hospital systems. With many states on quarantine, communicating through digital channels or, rather, utilizing the “Digital Front Door” of their websites and portals was the most efficient and logical option. However, like many in the healthcare industry, these channels were not adequate to meet patient expectations as they stood.

Right now, most healthcare providers are going through similar challenges due to the pandemic. How would you describe what’s happening and what it means for the future?

COVID-19 is a massive disrupter to everyone in healthcare. From a digital perspective, the healthcare industry has been a straggler. Organizations have been slow to adopt digital technologies and customers haven’t fully embraced online platforms. In addition, customer experiences and the operations to support digital tools have often not been designed for the general population.  Healthcare has not caught up to the transformations we’ve seen in other industries that people engage with every day, such as retail, media and hospitality. Many healthcare organizations have long-term roadmaps to make the digital shift, but COVID-19 is forcing them to make the shift much more quickly in order to survive.

Did you discover any challenges related to human-centered change that your customer had been unaware of—or underestimated? Any “aha” moments of discovery?

Our customer is trying to direct patients and communicate the information they need as rapidly as possible. They were struggling with how to be as fast and efficient as possible. This is partly because their organization has grown by acquisition. A lot of their systems, processes, and operations aren’t integrated. You can’t push a button and send out internal or external communications that work across the enterprise; a lot of coordination is involved. First, you need to determine who’s the lead on each aspect of the roll out and the content strategy. Then, you need to understand how the content is managed. Is it centrally managed at an enterprise level so it is consistent and can be quickly updated? Or is content managed locally, with tailored messaging to accommodate places like Washington, California and New York, where the pandemic hit first? Understanding the information flow and the nuanced operational impact of releasing messages is as important as the centralized vs. localized communication strategy.

We worked with our customer’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Team to find the best possible solution for communicating with patients. At first pass, the optimum approach was creating a central repository of content that each region could quickly leverage. And then, as a second iteration (prioritizing the highest impacted markets), the approach became building out customized microsites that carry local messaging such as local phone numbers, testing sites, links to telehealth, and other information such as states’ stay-at-home mandates. Also, we consistently emphasized that communications are not just about patient experience; they’re about employee experience, too. We found a lot of internal communication was top-down or bottom-up, and that left a big gap in the middle. We’ve been working to fix communications that were sometimes disparate or siloed.

How did your ability to empathize and understand shape your approach to solving this challenge?

First, we empathized with the patients who were experiencing COVID-19 to understand what this crisis means to them. We executed as fast and simply as possible to meet those needs—then iterated in a personalized way. It is really important to have a mechanism in place for efficient bottom- up communication so the voice of the customer and the front line employee’s point of view can be quickly incorporated and addressed in messaging.

One thing that came out of listening to the frontline was the need for an online symptom checker.  As a society, we like to self-diagnose, which can lead to more anxiety and, ultimately, overburdening the system.  It’s necessary to provide a reputable tool that gives patients 24/7 access to see if they have COVID-19 symptoms. However, in order for it to have the most impact, the tool needs to be personalized to provide specific, actionable next steps based on a patient’s symptoms and location—where to go to get tested, and where and when they should seek treatment. It’s an important first line of defense to point patients in the right direction and alleviate the health system burden.

It is important to realize that every idea has a technology, resource, and process impact. Defining new ideas to meet customer and employee needs is one aspect, but understanding the operational and technical capabilities to support these experiences was, in many ways, one of the biggest challenges of this environment.

How did your ability to empathize and understand lead to results? What were those results?     

We’re still in the middle of this, with more iterations to come. But already, patients are getting care faster, whether it’s through a video visit or telehealth service, with directions on where to go from there if they need more care. Like many healthcare systems, our customer had a roadmap to roll out a lot of these digital services in the future. Now, we are helping them dramatically accelerate their digital transformation and realize the benefits much sooner than they’d anticipated. We are helping them fundamentally make a cultural shift, focused on patient and employee experiences.          

What might this customer have missed if they had underestimated the human dimension of their challenge—and the solution?

Because non-essential healthcare services, home care, and surgeries are being shut down, many clinics and hospitals are going bankrupt. If a healthcare organization can’t quickly shift its care model and offset losses by successfully deploying digital visits to help its patients, it won’t survive. This is an industry-wide issue, and we’re seeing it across many healthcare organizations.

If you could leave readers with just one message about the value of human-centered change, what would it be?

COVID-19 is a human crisis. The sense of urgency and stakes are high. Patients are expecting healthcare organizations to meet their needs quickly at a time when their clinics and hospitals are flooded. These pressures mean that in order to stay relevant, healthcare organizations need to make a shift to digital in days and weeks, not the usual months and years. As your organization makes the shift, don’t wait to get your first iteration perfect. Take an agile approach. Get out there now. Release your best effort to meet the demand and capture your audience, and then plan to tailor and iterate as you go.