“COVID’s impact has been devastating in many ways—and it’s been incredibly inspiring,” said our October 9th Campfire guest John Looney, MSM, Vice President of Marketing, Communications and Public Affairs at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Mass General Brigham. 

“On the devastating front, our organization and the entire system have been hit hard financially,” said John. “It has taken an enormous toll on our staff and our providers. On the other side it’s been unbelievably inspiring to be part of this work. I’ve seen teams rally in ways that I never could have envisioned.”

Watch our Campfire Session, Peer to Peer: Make the Case for Marketing Investment. Or read below for key takeaways from our webinar event!

On 10/09/2020, John Looney, MSM, Vice President of Marketing, Communications and Public Affairs at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Mass General Brigham was gracious enough to join Stephen and Mike for a Q & A on marketing investment during COVID. The session was packed with: 

  • consumer sentiment polling and research
  • a sample of a patient recovery campaign that is now in market 
  • Q1 planning advice 

Here’s what was discussed:

  • Why investing in advertising is the right thing to do for patients and for the health system
  • How Mass General Brigham, one of the world’s most respected health system brands, is coming together like never before to engage patients, employees and providers
  • Why John is encouraging hospital staff to share key messages in the community
  • How the hospital is leveraging new community outreach strategies to keep at-risk populations safe and well

Consumer Sentiment Polling and Research

John shared that Mass General Brigham providers, like those of other systems, were reporting seeing patients delaying care to the point of creating an emergency or crisis situation for themselves. 

This spurred the system to conduct robust consumer sentiment polling and research surrounding why patients were delaying care and when they planned to return to care.

At the beginning of the study, patients were polled on a weekly basis; since then, polling has shifted to bi-weekly.

Findings from the poll include:

  • 50% of participants indicated and still indicate that they have either delayed their care individually or that their provider has canceled their care. 
  • Although procedures are being rescheduled there has not been a lot of movement week-to-week in patient sentiment surrounding seeking care.
  • The reasons given for not returning to care include: 
  1. the procedure or condition wasn’t perceived as urgent 
  2. a concern about contracting COVID-19.
  • 77% of those polled indicated they are putting off routine care. 
  • 30% are delaying screenings.
  • When asked when they thought they would return to care, 50% of patients indicated they would delay routine care and/or screenings either 1 to 3 months, 4 to 6 months or until after the pandemic is over. 

The Right Thing To Do

The fact that patients would delay routine care and screenings for months or even until after the pandemic was over was deeply troubling to the health care system.

“When we saw a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, our attention and the attention of the system did start to shift to recovery and bringing patients—and quite frankly business—back,” said John. “A lot of those initial conversations were thinking about, how do we bring back our elective cases? But the research really pushed us in a different direction.”

The system became much more proactive and deliberate around a greater calling.

“We needed to reassure these patients that it was safe to come back and get them to return not only for what they perceived to be routine care but also for screenings,” said John.

The research allowed the system to pivot and recognize what its patients needed to hear. And for it to do what was right for its patients—including escalating its efforts to connect with communities that needed additional support.

See what's working

Research-Driven Messaging and Marketing  

John also shared research about how often patients want to be communicated with and where they want their health care provider or system to make that connection.

  • 1 in 3 people want to hear from the system once a month, an indicator that there is an appetite for more information.
  • The preferred mode of communication—email.
  • Research also indicated that patients trust information from their doctor or provider the most, even above that of the CDC.

Interestingly, our own Hailey Sault consumer sentiment research conducted at the beginning of the pandemic and later into the crisis showed similar findings in different markets across the country.

Specific Messaging to Patients

John talked about the newest campaign efforts by Newton-Wellesley Hospital and Mass General Brigham and how providers were used in that effort as a way to connect with patients and encourage them to come back to care. 

Internal Messaging

One of our Hailey Sault insights—from the beginning of the pandemic and even now—is that employees need to be informed in order to create advocates and ambassadors who can get needed messages out. John’s experience reflected what we have learned:

“The internal communications piece of our effort has been huge,” said John. “In the heat of the surge we had to completely create a whole new communications program and structure to support the needs of our organization. Our goal all along has been to engage our staff. We knew we needed to get the message out and we asked them for their help. We gave them the tools that they needed to have these conversations, not only with their staff, but also with their family members, with their neighbors and with people in their community.”

Coming Together as a System

Before the pandemic, plans were in place to integrate the marketing teams of Newton-Wellesley Hospital and other hospitals with the Mass General Brigham system.

“With COVID, like so many other initiatives, it got put on hold,” said John. “But what was inspiring for me to watch were the leads across the system, even though we weren’t coming together to push that work forward, we continued to come together to rally around this crisis we were all dealing with. It became about, ‘How can we support each other? How can we share what we’re doing? How can we learn from each other?”

“Now coming out of COVID, we’ve been able to accelerate that other work. I think it’s based on the energy and the commitment and the relationship building that was able to take place during COVID.”

Investing in Marketing Right Now

When talking about the campaigns now in market to reassure patients and get them back to routine care and screening, John shared advice on Q1 planning and financial recovery:

“But at the same time for us, we’re moving into Q1 of our next fiscal year. We are also moving forward with a lot of our other patient acquisition campaigns and strategies and really doing both. Because it is important to not only reassure patients, we also have to be very deliberate about bringing patients back.”

Quick Last Bits of Advice

On testing: John shared some tips about testing a campaign’s messaging and a campaign’s look by easily using input from patient groups or patient advisory councils.

On media/news outlets: He also told us about leveraging media relations by being accessible and having experts trained to be thought leaders and able to answer questions when media outlets call. He told us at the peak of the surge his hospital was getting two or three inquiries a day from the media.

On the skills needed to thrive in health care marketing now—and into the future: John said above all else being the voice of the patient and collaborating, building alliances and relationships across the organization—including operations—were the skills needed to thrive.


1. Leverage your care providers as much as possible across all channels of communications with patients right now. They are the trusted source of information for patients and patients want to hear from them.

2. Patients and the media are hungry for information from you. Be that source for them. 

3. Communicate internally, create brand ambassadors, give them tools to communicate with friends, family members, neighbors and the community at large.

4. Keep the energy and collaboration going that has brought you together through this crisis by continuing to support each other, share resources and learn from each other.

5. As you hit Q1, continue to reassure patients that it is safe to come in for routine care and screenings but also begin the patient acquisition work that needs to be done for the financial health of your organization.

Join Us for Our Next Campfire Session

We started the Campfire webinars in the early days of COVID-19 so colleagues could discuss the issues and opportunities impacting health care marketers. That was when we thought COVID-19 would be “here today, gone tomorrow.” Clearly, there’s still a lot to discuss. Join us and your colleagues for an upcoming fun and informative session soon. Click the link below to view past Campfires and to be notified of future Campfires.


Mankato Recovery Campaign info