Communication Professionals and the Changing Healthcare Ecosystem


Recently, I attended The Future of Healthcare Communications Summit, hosted by the Business Development Institute and PR Newswire. The event focused on the Affordable Care Act (ACA)–a law that will impact not just the people directly enrolling in it, but our entire healthcare ecosystem.

The question of where we as healthcare communication professionals fit in drove the day’s discussion.  The ACA has unleashed a confusing rhetoric into the collective healthcare dialogue; this conversational shift has demanded that marketing and PR professionals rise to the occasion and explain what is changing and how to handle it.

Here is the short and sweet of it:

The path to treatment was once a funnel, now it’s a maze

The current healthcare landscape requires patients to advocate for their own health –and to do so properly, they must understand the system their health is entrenched in.

With the roll out of the ACA, this world has never been more difficult to navigate. Indeed, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 70% of respondents didn’t understand the ACA or only understood part of it.

Deductibles, medication, out of network access –there are multiple elements at play, and there is no map nor one correct treatment plan. It’s also important to remember that insurance was a historically B2B operation: the phenomenon of individuals directly interacting with their insurers is still a relatively new one, and the ACA is just an acceleration of this consumer-centric exchange.

As one of the presenters from Aetna noted, through our PR and media strategies, we can help patients to uncover their “True North” –i.e., the best health route for their unique needs.

Online engagement is changing; it’s impacting individual health decisions more than ever

Many of the presenters referenced the shift in health-specific online activity from info-seeking (i.e. WebMD, Wikipedia) to interactive health services and social engagement. Perhaps, the biggest trend in recent years, and growing even faster post ACA, is the establishment of online communities where patients connect with peers to explore their conditions and exchange advice on treatment options and disease management. The Aetna presenters, Carissa O’Brien and Matt Wiggin, cited “Patients Like Me” as a successful example of this.

Participating in health communities helps patients feel more empowered and autonomous in their health decisions, and we can leverage the knowledge that people want to learn from their own communities in our strategic communications plan.

Health plans don’t work overnight

There has been quite a bit of an uproar over the ACA not impacting our services fast enough, but this should come as no surprise in a society accustomed to fast paces. But health plans can’t overhaul the system immediately. In fact, changes as tectonic as this might take years to fully settle in and create meaningful outcomes.

Gil Bashe, an EVP at Makovsky, reminded us of Medicare Part D’s evolution. When it first passed in 2003, policymakers and individuals alike were doubtful that it would provide comprehensive prescription drug coverage to senior citizens without financially draining the government. A little over ten years later, Medicare Part D offers affordable drug coverage to 30 million senior citizens, has reduced other Medicare costs like hospitalizations, and has helped better manage chronic disease.

Lack of coverage equals bad preventative care

Pre ACA, our healthcare system engendered a reactive approach to care. This was and still is a large problem with our attitudes towards health. People tend to only address their health needs in times of acute sickness–and if you’re not covered, this means a trip to the emergency room.

But, the ACA has the ability to establish more of a continuation of care and a value-shift to proactive wellness.

Mr. Bashe pointed out that Swedes have double the chance of living longer than Americans. Why? More access. The ACA is meant to expand access, but the lack of understanding of what services are offered is creating a barrier to care. Healthcare communicators need to take a two-pronged approach: ensure our messaging emphasizes the importance of preventative care, and  help clients, patients, friends understand what is available.

So what are the next steps?

1. Become the expert on the ACA: research all of its stratums, poke around like a consumer, keep up with the latest news and any changes.

2. Listen in on patient social conversations and use this intel to inform your health programs. Social media channels and online patient communities like the one cited above can provide healthcare communicators with guidance on what content they should provide and where they should deliver it.

3. Encourage patient-focused strategies. The explosion of digital and the ACA are contributing to a wave of patient empowerment; we need to integrate this value-shift from product to patient into our business plans, in order to help clients become trusted treatment partners.

4. Create content that can be translated to multiple channels. The explosion of digital demands a branded experience in various contexts; messaging must move seamlessly between platforms, devices and screens – generating fast, easy and consistent access to health information.

Photo courtesy of  Daniel Borman

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