Kathryn McMahon Arrigg
Kathryn McMahon Arrigg

COVID-19 has forced us to change our behaviors, and how we manage our healthcare has been no exception. As such, this unforeseen pandemic must also stimulate change in the way stakeholders across the digital health community communicate with consumers and educate them about their products.

The biggest COVID-related transformation across the healthcare landscape is the rise of virtual care and increases in telehealth. While these platforms have slowly gained market share for years, legislation related to patient privacy was largely holding it back until stay-at-home mandates tested the strength of telehealth on a national scale.

But how many of these changes are here to stay once we’re on the other side of the pandemic and we resume life as we once knew it?

Consumer questions

Let’s consider where we were less than a year ago: Whether it was due to lack of availability as a result of legislative red tape or personal preferences, many patients didn’t take advantage of virtual care options prior to the pandemic. In fact, according to a Kyruus survey, the majority of healthcare consumers had their first-ever virtual visit during the COVID-19 pandemic, and over 75 percent were satisfied with their virtual care experiences. According to a McKinsey report, since the COVID-19 pandemic, medical providers have rapidly scaled their offerings and are seeing 50 to 175 times the number of patients via telehealth than they did before.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '20 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine (view PDF version)

Virtual care offers many natural advantages. But what may still be confusing to consumers is what areas of medicine are most effective via virtual health, and what does innovation look like?

It may be easy enough to confer with a general practitioner over the phone about cold symptoms, but what if you need to see your eye doctor about vision problems? Therapists are now seeing patients virtually, and while this channel may be more convenient for patients, can it be as effective as face-to-face interaction? If you notice a rash, it’s possible to send an image to your dermatologist, but do you still need to go in for your annual mole scan? As we continue to take advantage of the benefits of virtual care, consumers are asking these questions, and it’s the responsibility of collective healthcare stakeholders—government, providers, payers, technology providers—to help consumers navigate this new terrain.

The reality of wearables

Another factor associated with staying out of the doctor’s office is the wide range of digital tools available to today’s connected consumer. Without a huge investment, we can easily measure our heart rate, sleep activity and more at our own convenience. In fact, Apple recently announced that its latest version of the Apple Watch will now measure blood oxygen levels. This measurement is particularly interesting right now since lower blood oxygen levels may be a sign of a respiratory illness, such as COVID-19. But how much can you rely on this measurement—and others provided by smart devices—without receiving additional input from your physician? With less frequent doctor visits, the onus is on wearable brands to properly communicate to consumers how to best use this information and when it’s time to seek medical attention.

Channels where brands make a difference

Given these new factors, digital health brands—especially those with a hand in virtual care—have an opportunity and a higher responsibility to help to communicate benefits, early lessons learned and pitfalls of telemedicine. One way to improve communication is to leverage their own data. Key statistics associated with virtual care of interest to stakeholders could include patient satisfaction scores, cost savings, need for in-person intervention, and more.

For example, perhaps an Electronic Health Record vendor has insights into the number of rash-related dermatology cases that were closed out without needing an in-person visit. Brands can deploy that data as part of their content marketing strategy to help inform consumers’ decision-making. If they are in a similar position, these types of engagements will help them understand their level of confidence in virtual diagnoses vs. in-person.

Another key focus for brands from a communications standpoint is security associated with virtual care. It’s up to brands that are enabling telehealth or providing virtual support via AI to communicate the steps they’ve taken to reduce the risk of patient data being compromised. Thought leadership highlighting progress brands have made in data security is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate how your company is at the forefront of patient data protection.

What’s covered when the dust settles?

Insurance coverage is another area in which consumers will be seeking clear communication. While many are interested in virtual care, they’re unclear about whether their insurance will cover it, especially post-COVID, and which telehealth services are available in their network. While in many cases temporary provisions have been put in place, decisions about future coverage will be in the hands of Medicare and private insurers. Likewise, insurers and insure-tech brands can build loyalty and trust by communicating early and often with consumers about these changes. Email and social media are effective channels, but multimedia tools, such as video and podcasts, are additional ways for executives to communicate changes in a succinct and easy-to-understand manner.

Tapping in to the new conversation

Clear and succinct communication from brands in the digital health space will continue to be essential during this new era, but just as COVID has mandated a new experience, brands must also match that path with new strategies to effectively reach consumers.

The first step is to assess your tools for media and social listening to better understand and monitor virtual care and telehealth conversations. This discovery process will give brands the information they need to adjust messaging and positioning as needed. Take the same steps you would if you were a newly formed company: Reassess your brand’s competitive differentiators within the context of the new landscape, develop brand language, test positioning with key audiences and segment thought leadership efforts to align with buyer personas. Re-train your executive thought leadership team on how to communicate new messages across earned, owned and shared channels. From there, measure key analytics early and often to assess whether this new positioning is effectively breaking into the new conversation and having an impact.

Our communities may look and feel different, but the goal of thought leadership remains the same: to inspire consideration and action. Regardless of the outcome of the telehealth revolution, digital health brands should invest in thought leadership and leverage data. Brands that tap these resources to ensure consumers have a proper understanding of their options, changing regulations and the benefits of this new frontier in healthcare will position themselves to be the most successful.


Kathryn McMahon Arrigg is Director at PAN Communications.