Thanks to this pandemic, the next new normal in health care marketing is a constantly evolving, constantly moving target. But that’s not all bad. We (meaning all of us in the health care marketing business) have been forced to continually pivot, to think in new ways, to be more creative than we’ve probably ever been, to meet challenges head-on and to accept change whether we like it or not. It’s opened up new avenues of collaboration throughout health care systems and it’s created opportunities to connect with patients on a much more human level.

Watch our Campfire Session, The Next Normal in Health Care Marketing. Or read below for key takeaways from our webinar event!

On 10/22/2020, Steven and I welcomed back, for a second time, two Campfire guests we admire: 

  • Toni Midderhoff Miller, Director of Brand Marketing, NorthShore University HealthSystem
  • Carl Maronich, Marketing Director, Riverside Healthcare

We had a captivating discussion around:

  • Business recovery
  • Changes in patient attitudes, preferences and care journeys—and why it matters
  • Planning challenges
  • Leading during the pandemic
  • Diversity and inclusion

Business recovery and community needs

  • Carl and Toni told us that business recovery—and the return of patients to most areas of care—is moving faster than expected, especially in areas where patients may be experiencing pain that they are no longer able to manage, like the hip and knee pain associated with joint replacement.
  • More good news: Carl told us that women who put off their mammograms during the early days of COVID are rescheduling their screenings.
  • Both Carl and Toni say their organizations are focusing on heart care right now. Both found that a lot of folks were terrified to come in for care during the beginning months of the pandemic.
  • “We noticed that the number of people coming in for heart attacks and heart related issues had dropped dramatically,” said Toni. “So we knew we had a lot of unfortunate fatalities as a result. So that is one of our key focus areas.”
  • “Our primary focus is really business recovery from the standpoint of which are the most critical things that are going to help make our patients safe?” said Toni. “What are the community’s needs? And then, how are we going to make sure that we are going to keep those individuals safe once they come into our facility?”  

Your changing patients

  • The way many patients access care has changed. NorthShore University HealthSystem and Riverside Healthcare both implemented telehealth during COVID and are continuing to provide that service for their patients. 
  • “One of the things this experience has created for our patients is some access points that they’re not going to want to see go away if we ever get to post- COVID,” said Carl. “Video visits are very convenient and so no matter the world circumstance, people are going to still want video visits.”
  • The whole emphasis on access and ease of access and making things as easy for patients as possible is something Carl says his organization is making a high priority.
  • “People don’t hold us up to a standard of other health care organizations,” said Carl. “They hold us up to the standard of all organizations. They want us to be as convenient as anybody, not just as the other hospital down the road. So we’ve got to take those consumer needs and expectations into mind as we go forward.”
  • Toni shared that she read that telehealth has probably moved health care forward a decade.
  • “We were all immersed in—how do you do the insurance? What is the risk?—And trying to understand all those components,” said Toni. “And immediately COVID went, ‘Those are irrelevant, you need to care for patients.’”
  • Toni also mentioned that having to wait in a waiting room may become a thing of the past. She told a story about waiting in her car for her most recent appointment and how it gave her a moment to think. She feels this may become something patients appreciate.
  • “That personal kind of feeling that they are taking care of me is being displayed and is showing up in a new way,” said Toni.
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How patients are feeling right now

I asked Carl and Toni what they thought patients were feeling right now, seven months into this pandemic—amid a spike in COVID cases.

  • “They are not only patients, they are people,” said Carl. “So their frustration level is increasing as the restrictions come and go. All those frustrations build and now they are having to deal with their health care institution. They want things to be as simple as possible. So I think we need to be expressing even more humanity now than we ever have.”
  • “In addition to the frustration Carl identified are two other things,” said Toni. “One being a weariness around not having the knowledge and the understanding of when this will change. The second is this interesting reliance on health care partners. People are looking for us to help them. We’ve gained their trust over these seven or eight months.” 
  • “People are constantly aware of their health care now,” said Toni. “‘What is the latest news? Are there new symptoms I should be aware of? Is there something else that is happening?’ And they are looking to health organizations in a very different way than before to help them navigate that space.”

An aside: Your human staff

There was a wonderful discussion around communicating with your health care organization’s staff, the stress that is being felt, the sadness surrounding furloughs, and the need to acknowledge the superhuman efforts that are being made at this time.

Planning challenges

Stephen asked about the challenges and opportunities Toni and Carl and their teams are experiencing during strategic planning for 2021.

Toni’s fiscal year started October 1. So planning started in March when everything was shutting down. She was turning off media and reworking plans surrounding 120 or so community events on the docket at the time. She also had the challenge of her team working remotely through the entire planning process. For Toni, planning involved questions that included:

  • What will the consumer mindset be?
  • What will they need versus what we have to offer?
  • What areas might emerge as a result of the pandemic?

Carl is in the midst of planning; he said his team is concerned about:

  • The budget and how to do more with less.
  • Keeping their eye on how the world of COVID is going and how it will impact how they message to the public going forward.
  • Making sure they are encouraging people to take care of themselves and get in for the care they need when they need it.

Both Toni and Carl talked about the challenge of combining big-picture brand messaging with service line messaging, right now. Carl reminded us:

“Back to the humanity for things—the patient doesn’t care if you’re an ortho person or a neuro person or a cardiac person. They want to be serviced the same way all the way through and to have a consistent patient experience. That was a challenge ten years ago, twenty years ago and it continues to be, and maybe more so now.”

Leading during a pandemic

I asked Toni and Carl what they’ve learned through this time and what they will take with them moving forward. They told us about the importance of:

  • Keeping human connections between colleagues alive.
  • Being careful not to make meetings simply transactional as you work remotely—fostering a feeling of care about what is happening in everyone’s life.
  • With everything happening so fast during this time, Toni likes to say we’re actually running on the bridge as we are trying to build it—so being aware of the toll that can take.
  • The importance of bringing the fun or the happy.
  • Maintaining the unique culture developed with colleagues.
  • The need to be flexible, especially with colleagues who have young kids at home.

Diversity and inclusion

  • In June, NorthShore University HealthSystem, along with other Chicago health care organizations, issued a joint statement to work together to overcome systemic racism and the health care disparities it creates.
  • Toni and Carl shared their thoughts about the importance of diversity, inclusion and health equity with us, in the aftershow—S’mores Break—of our Campfire. 
  • This topic felt so fundamentally essential to us that we highly encourage you to watch this part of the Campfire and find out what we can do as health care communicators.


1. Right now business recovery has to be tied to what the communities we serve need and how we can keep individuals in our communities healthy and safe.

2. Telehealth and other patient conveniences are probably here to stay.

3. Patients have developed a new interest in health care and a new trust in us. They are also frustrated, weary and looking to us for answers.

4. We need to be expressing even more humanity now than we ever have.

5. Planning challenges include doing more with less and keeping an eye on how the world of COVID impacts our messaging.

6. Leading through this pandemic means bringing joy, connection, fun and flexibility into the work space whether that work space is remote or in person.

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.


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