David Landis
David Landis

Having been around the block a while, our agency has seen industry sectors boom and bust. And, in turn, some of the public relations professionals that serve those industries have succumbed to the vagaries of economic upheaval.

But at LCI, we had a plan. We implemented what we thought was a recession-proof strategy after the last Great Recession: concentrate on healthcare. The theory was, people will always need healthcare, and with a sizeable Boomer generation getting older—and ready to retire—it would be a growing industry sector.

And then COVID hit—and changed everything. That old adage comes to mind: “The only thing constant in life is change.”

So, what’s the “new normal” in healthcare PR? Let’s take a look at what happened to the industry and how it impacted the PR sector. We all assumed that healthcare providers—and their PR professionals—would be even more needed, especially during times of crises and, above all, during pandemics. Instead, it turned out to be a mixed bag.

Why? Because the U.S. healthcare system is set up so that the economic generators for healthcare organizations—mostly elective surgeries—were completely interrupted because of the pandemic. And the snowball effect was that healthcare systems that needed to be there for us during a pandemic had even fewer resources to handle the pandemic. The snowball grew to an avalanche: organizations made budget cuts throughout their businesses, including public relations (both externally and internally).

According to Jack O’Brien, writing for Health Leaders in March, “The rapid spread of coronavirus has U.S. hospitals faced with several issues related to operating margins, revenue collection and reimbursement for treating patients with this disease. Within the past two weeks, coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has significantly disrupted the American way of life, sinking the country’s economic system and placing hospitals under unprecedented financial and clinical stress.”

In the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley region where we work, according to the San Francisco Business Times, budget cuts were widespread. Stanford Health Care cut salaries by 20 percent beginning in April. University of California-San Francisco cut costs by $45 million in July. And Sutter Health reported more than a $1 billion loss for the first quarter of 2020 (their financials turned around in the second quarter, with net $231 million, but for the first half of 2020, the system still had a loss of $831 million). (Full disclosure, all of these healthcare systems are former LCI clients).

To survive, healthcare systems are looking for unique ways to ride the financial vagaries, such as forging new partnerships with insurers to pave the way. In our market, Cigna and Dignity Healthcare just announced a new agreement between the two entities that will allow Dignity’s hospitals, outpatient surgery centers and medical groups to be in-network providers for Cigna members.

There’s a silver lining in all this. While traditional, big healthcare providers have faced undue financial challenges, healthcare startups are riding a new—and positive—wave.

According to Tara Bannow, reporter with Modern Healthcare (July 2020), the “pandemic has spurred a flood of venture capital funding to healthcare startups. Venture capital funding in healthcare intensified in the first half of 2020 as COVID-19 made virtual care and similar technologies indispensable. Startups focused on telehealth, mental health, wearables and even transportation have gained new relevance during the pandemic. Companies that convinced investors of their long-term staying power even after the crisis subsides gained particular traction when it came to raising capital.”

“We’ve seen decades of progress in 12 to 14 weeks,” said Unity Stoakes, President and Co-Founder of the healthcare startup incubator StartUp Health.

“Global venture capital funding for digital health and health innovation,” continued Bannow, “totaled $9.1 billion in the first half of the year, up from $7.7 billion during the same period in 2019, according to a second-quarter report from StartUp Health. And 2019 was itself a banner year for startup funding. (Many of) the types of companies that attracted funding are both, directly and indirectly, related to the pandemic. Virtual care platform Conversa Health, for instance, in June closed $12 million in Series B funding. Conversa helps health systems monitor and manage patients across a variety of specialties, including oncology, acute discharge and wellness. During the pandemic, that has included patients who need to be monitored while quarantined at home. It counts such prominent health systems as Northwell Health and University Hospitals in Cleveland as clients.”

For us at LCI, this upheaval is just another pivot. We’ve seen firsthand that many healthcare and biopharma startups here in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley got funded before the pandemic hit; they still have money to spend and recognize the value of PR. For instance, we helped launch Frontier Medicines, a bio-pharma startup funded by a $67 million Series A financing round last June. (Frontier Medicines leverages chemoproteomics and machine learning to “drug the undruggable” protein targets that drive human disease). Despite the pandemic, we also just signed another new startup healthcare client in August. According to Erica Young, writing for Healthcare Weekly in 2019, “We reviewed more than 200 healthcare startups that have received funding or announced major initiatives in 2020.”

Additional areas of PR opportunity are all the new wellness businesses that are springing up during COVID. Market research firm Technavio has been monitoring the health and wellness market and says that it’s “poised to grow by $1299.84 billion during 2020-2024, progressing at a compound annual growth rate of over six percent during the forecast period.” These businesses require and need PR, too.

On another front, many healthcare businesses are re-jiggering to help people weather this pandemic. Our client Centre for Neuro Skills helps patients rehabilitate through traumatic or acquired brain injury. But lately, doctors have noticed that patients have had health consequences after recovering from COVID. These consequences include neuro injury and cognitive impairments—which require rehabilitation. Helping clients like this navigate communications through changing COVID waters is yet another way PR pros can help, and a necessary and valued offering that supports business success through a challenging time.

So, the transformations to the healthcare industry aren’t bad news for public relations; it’s just change. And isn’t that something at which PR pros excel?

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David Landis is President and CEO of San Francisco-based Landis Communications Inc. (LCI), which this year celebrates 30 years in business. Email David at david@landispr.com.