“Medicine isn’t a doctor with a black bag…it’s a complex web of systems and processes,” writes physician and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Siddhartha Mukherjee, from the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is a healthcare delivery system — providing antibiotics to a child with strep throat or a new kidney to a patient with renal failure. It is a research program, guiding discoveries from the lab bench to the bedside. It is a set of protocols for quality control — from clinical practice guidelines to drug and device approvals. And it is a forum for exchanging information, allowing for continuous improvement in patient care.”
It’s an eloquent way to summarize a complex and deeply interconnected industry facing unprecedented strain. Half the industry is drowning under the weight of too many cases and not enough people, resources, and equipment. The other half is struggling to stay afloat as patients put off procedures and avoid doctors’ visits.
In the U.S. in April 2020, there were 1.4 million job losses in the healthcare sector due to suspended elective medical procedures and closures of doctors’ and dentists’ offices. “Many physician practices have seen in-person patient visits drop 50% or even 75%. That has left physicians and hospitals struggling to keep the lights on and forced growing numbers to consider laying off staff or even closing their doors,” reports the L.A. Times.
Some specialties like infectious disease, on the other hand, are asking physicians and nurses to work 80+ hour weeks because of intense human resource shortages. And overall the industry creates more jobs every year than it can fill, with massive shortages of nurses, aides, and home healthcare and facility workers.
And that’s before even looking at the consumer health and wellness industry beyond pure healthcare. The industry, encompassing products that range from exercise machines to x-ray machines, is both broad and deep: it covers many varied product and service categories, many with their own large and complex sub-industries. That makes it a fascinating study in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic — with so many different sectors and segments, there are a lot of lessons that brands in any industry can take away from how health and wellness is innovating their way through this pandemic.
Companion Medical is the maker of a smart insulin pen — a medical device that helps patients with diabetes track their insulin dosage and communicate this information to their physician. With many doctors’ offices closed, and many patients unwilling or unable to leave their homes, this device is proving to be instrumental in helping people with diabetes stay in touch with their physician, and in doing so to stay healthier.
Companion Medical was started by Sean Saint — who has Type 1 diabetes himself — to make treatment and care easier and better. Legacy treatment options were extremely limited: patients either used “dumb” pens, which were little more than auto-injecting syringes, or they used insulin pumps, bulky devices that attached to patients with long plastic tubes that still needed to be monitored closely and adjusted regularly.
Companion Medical’s solution was to combine the best of both options: the digital capabilities of insulin pumps, including the ability to monitor and record dosages and other events, and the portability and ease of use of insulin pens. When people with diabetes (PWDs) use Companion Medical’s device, information about the patient’s dose is transmitted to a phone app. This data is used to track insulin use, create schedules and set reminders, automate logging, and transmit this information back to physicians — something even more important during the pandemic.
“Diabetes is a disease of data,” explains Sean. “We have our blood sugar. We have our insulin doses. We have our carbohydrate intake. We have several other inputs to our disease that have to be monitored, not only on a day-to-day basis, but on an hour-to-hour basis. And with the smart pen, we can review them for ourselves and we can send the data through a cloud for review from your healthcare provider.”
Personal, but not in person
Companion Medical, like so many other medical device companies, relied heavily on conferences and a sales team to grow business. COVID-19 made this impossible and required a change to how the company sold itself.
Physicians were no longer going to conferences, but Companion Medical saw an opportunity to bring conferences to physicians with digital meetings and virtual presentations. Sean says, “You can say, ‘This is what our booth might have looked like. Here’s the video you would have seen. Here’s the collateral you would have been handed; you can download it. Here’s an opportunity to schedule a webinar with a sales rep or a territory manager.’”
Sales reps, the other side of the medical device marketing equation, are also getting in on the virtual action. Companion Medical’s sales team has been actively hosting webinars and making virtual visits with teleconferencing tools and equipment. Brands that were able to thrive through the pandemic realized early on that doing things the old way was impossible, and that they needed to radically rethink how they performed basic business functions.
Going the distance
The transition to virtual sales may have been easier for Companion Medical because of their nature as a telehealth company. They were built to remotely connect patients to physicians. And in the pandemic, they leveraged that know-how to grow.
Telehealth companies have expanded exponentially in recent years. This trend has accelerated with the pandemic: Telehealth visits are expected to top one billion during the crisis, according to Forrester Research.
Even health plans have begun preparing for a radical rethinking of how consumers receive health and wellness services. Medicare, and some commercial health insurance companies, are changing the way they pay physicians to deal with the changing realities of doctors’ visits. According to the L.A. Times, “Many experts see that as a first step toward redefining the traditional office visit, expanding telehealth and abandoning the age-old system of paying doctors for each service they perform…a single monthly payment can encourage practices to redesign the way they deliver care.”
“Telehealth has been moved forward by years,” notes Sean. Companion Medical took advantage of that growth and was able to multiply the magnitude of their message by piggybacking it on top of social distancing concerns.
On how “telehealth has moved forward by years”:
Content is still king
The pandemic also pushed Companion Medical to expand their marketing in ways it hadn’t considered before.
“I think the pandemic gave us a reason to put a lot of content together that we might have not previously, and frankly, just do a better job than I think users might have expected. It’s a real opportunity!” says Sean. This included trying out a mixture of case studies and fun snaps that convey the lifestyle benefits of effective diabetes management on social media channels.
“COVID-19 just smacked all of us in the face and said, ‘You know, there’s something going on here and you need to react to it right now,’” he continues. “I think those of us that were the most successful were those of us that gave ourselves permission to maybe be a little bit wrong.
“But it’s better to do something and maybe not get it perfectly right than to do nothing whatsoever. That applies not only to pandemics, but also any other business challenge you might have. Don’t be afraid to try something. You won’t always be right, but that’s OK. And frankly, it’s called innovation.”
- More than ever, companies need to build virtual meeting strategies directly into their marketing plans. Even after the COVID crisis passes, virtual is going to be the future, and jumping on it early will be critical to finding success.
- The difference between a crisis and an opportunity is how quickly you recognize and adapt. A rapid reaction strategy is a must for companies looking to grow aggressively.
- Content is still king, and providing value is still the most important thing a marketing campaign can do.
AlgaeCal is dedicated to supporting consumer health through scientifically-backed, naturally-inspired, plant-based supplements. Despite almost two decades in business, the company was concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their sales.
AlgaeCal was built on a direct-to-consumer (D2C) model, relying on phone calls and web orders for sales, which gave them some insulation against COVID-19 lockdowns. Still, with unemployment rising and economic outlooks falling, they decided to ramp up customer outreach rather than leave success to chance.
Ramp up brand/customer loyalty
“We thought we were going to do way worse. We were predicting revenue to be cut by 50%, but we didn’t see that,” reflects AlgaeCal’s SEM Manager, Jasper Mordeno, who attributes a great deal of their success to the decision to open up a dialogue about the coronavirus with its customers.
“I think it’s because we are being very proactive with nurturing our loyalty and just cutting our losses when we know something’s not working,” he adds.
Recent research by Deloitte appears to back this theory up. In a new report entitled “Maintaining Customer Loyalty and Trust During Times of Uncertainty”, it advises brands to get in touch with their customers to ”‘let them know how much you appreciate them and care about them — even if they are buying fewer goods and services from you.” It predicts that working even more closely with your customers during these challenging times will bring the added benefit of forming bonds that are likely to last for years.
AlgaeCal launched a new website section to try to help provide more information for its customers on COVID-19 and the company’s thoughts on the pandemic. Customers responded positively and told the company as much.
Email marketing, with more discussions on COVID-19 and AlgaeCal’s response to it, was also stepped up. And the call center — the central hub of AlgaeCal’s communications — has become even more critical than ever.
Jasper says AlgaeCal gets a higher volume of calls than other companies due to its older client base, who prefer that medium. The candid two-way dialogues that phone calls facilitate turned out to be a gift for sales and marketing teams, helping inform and direct their COVID-19 strategy.
“We have a really unique demographic and they rely on us to answer their questions a lot of the time,” says Jasper. “That’s why we have a fully-staffed call center. We receive a lot of calls, not just for buying products, but a lot of people asking us for advice too, and we have a really close relationship with our callers.
“A lot of people just want that easy human connection,” he continues, “so that’s why we make it readily available. Sometimes it’s just so much better to talk to somebody on the phone.”
This kind of customer data is invaluable for any brand. The insights AlgaeCal was able to pull from these phone conversations informed every aspect of their marketing and allowed them to rapidly iterate new messaging and approaches, from ideation to testing and feedback.
On how AlgaeCal establishes that “human connection”:
Thinking outside the box
As part of AlgaeCal’s experiments with communications during the pandemic, it was also surprised to find that its consumers became very engaged with its social media via a topic only indirectly related to its product — yoga.
Although yoga isn’t something AlgaeCal had previously dabbled in, the wellness practice does tie in with their customer’s goals of improving mobility. So AlgaeCal decided to try a low-outlay and low-risk piece of outreach in the form of a yoga class via its Facebook community group. It was an enormous hit. “It’s one cool thing that we’d never have thought to try if the pandemic hadn’t happened,” says Jasper.
“And it’s something we definitely want to do again because of the positive response we got from it. Again, it all ties back to human connection — engaging with our customers on a more personal level,” he continues. “I think that a lot of our customer base is looking for connection right now. Things can get lonely sometimes, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when you’re stuck at home. So just offering that way out, through our content, I think is how we kind of helped them overcome that.”
New customers will never be as cheap, as valuable, or as loyal as existing customers. Brands need to ensure that they are always prioritizing retention and engagement, not just focusing on acquisition.
- Despite popular belief, the internet has not made more traditional communication platforms obsolete. It’s important for brands to pick communication platforms based on what their customers want, not what happens to be the latest and shiniest.
- Just like when making friends, sometimes the best way for companies to engage with customers is to find interests and hobbies they have in common. Don’t be afraid to think beyond your brand to find common ground.
Kairos Vitality normally provides onsite biometric health screenings for employers and employees, analyzing health conditions and potential risks for the future, and using health coaches to help individuals take preventative steps. With workplaces across the country locked down, that became next to impossible.
“We thought if we don’t adapt to what’s going on around us then we will become extinct, just like what happens to anything else in this world. We’re watching unemployment skyrocket as more and more businesses shut down every day because of this pandemic, and we knew that Kairos could not be one of those statistics,” says Kairos Vitality’s Chief of Operations, Tyler Johnson, who recognized fast that requests from clients like health insurance companies were drying up.
Use company ethos as your guide
Surviving a crisis requires the ability to change direction quickly. For many companies, it can be difficult to know what that pivot should look like, but looking to the brand’s founding principles for inspiration can be a good place to start.
In figuring out how to pivot Kairos Vitality during the crisis, Tyler and the team referred back to Kairos’ ethos. In Greek mythology, Kairos was Zeus’ youngest child and was the personification of luck and opportunity. Kairos was often pictured bringing gifts to heroes and adventurers that would help them overcome a dangerous situation at just the right moment. That myth seemed particularly pertinent to the circumstances Kairos Vitality was facing.
Kairos Vitality pivoted from preventative health services to helping businesses gear up for their employees returning to work safely using “Pandemic Packages”. These packages offered companies technology to deal with the pandemic — from drive-through temperature scans to rapid COVID-19 testing that give results within 15 minutes or rapid COVID-19 antibody testing kits, as well as partnerships with urgent care clinics to provide virtual physician’s appointments and treatment for those diagnosed with COVID-19.
Kairos had unused lab space and equipment, a background in technology and remote services, and the capacity to test for COVID-19, all sitting unused. They turned this capacity into a brand new revenue stream for themselves and their partners and helped businesses find some luck and new opportunities like their mythological namesake.
- A brand’s mission, vision, and core values aren’t just pretty words. High-performing brands look to these to guide not just the way they do business, but the products and offerings they put out to customers.
Clover Health brings a modern approach to insurance for seniors and people with disabilities. Using data science, advanced analytics, behavior management, and a highly-trained care management team, Clover Health helps identify potential risks to their members’ health, and proactively manage or reduce it. And with a high percentage of black and Latin customers, an especially vulnerable group during COVID-19, Clover Health had to direct significant effort towards fighting the pandemic.
“One of the biggest takeaways we can get from this pandemic is the light it has cast on the inequity of the healthcare industry, and the impact of socioeconomic factors on an individual’s health outcome,” said Director of Corporate Communications, Andrew Still-Baxter. “So, we’re now as an industry asking ourselves, ‘How can we get ahead of these issues and make healthcare more equitable and efficient — and make these people healthier as a result?’”
Newer doesn’t always mean better
Clover Health’s members usually see their primary care physician four to five times a year, but many members were not able to have those visits in person during the two to three months of COVID-19 lockdowns. So one of the issues Clover Health worried about was the ability of members to manage their chronic diseases from home.
Medicare previously severely limited reimbursement of telehealth. Spurred on by the pandemic, however, CMS introduced coverage and reimbursement options to ensure continued access of care for seniors. This opened the doors for Clover Health to roll out new services and initiatives that had previously been impossible, even though Clover was confident they would benefit patients.
“The difficulties that seniors have experienced during these troubled times demonstrate the value telehealth brings to this demographic to help them get better care, especially in rural low-income areas,” explains Andrew.
But traditional images of telehealth, with video chats and apps and state-of-the-art internet of things (IOT) devices, don’t work for everyone. With a large elderly demographic, many members weren’t familiar with how to operate video calls, plus many members live in isolated rural areas with limited internet access. So, Clover Health took telehealth back to basics: telephones.
Follow the need
“We are focused pretty heavily on telehealth at the moment and we had to adapt quickly to roll it out within two weeks,” says Andrew. “It can be a little challenging with the average age of our members being 75 years old, and a lot of them don’t have smartphones to do video consultations. So we’re making sure we are supporting them any way we can — whether it’s calling them on the phone or mailing them information.”
According to Pew Research, 96% percent of Americans own a cellphone. Almost all own some kind of telephone. This made rolling out a phone-based system much easier and faster than developing a fully-featured stand-alone telehealth solution. It also gave the system a bigger reach, and better aligned with the needs of Clover Health’s customers.
Aside from telephones, Clover Health has also turned to the post office to help solve problems facing its members during COVID-19 and help them stay safe. “We don’t want people going to their local pharmacy right now because they’re at risk. So one way we’re supporting them is by seeing how many people we can help find other options that might work for them, such as having their prescriptions delivered by mail,” says Andrew.
But using low-tech solutions doesn’t mean giving up on the tech industry’s need for data. “We’re a tech company, so measuring our metrics is something we’re engaged in doing constantly.” The company uses data models to track the effectiveness of its work, like signing up individuals for mail-delivery medications, to make sure clinical initiatives are effectively improving health outcomes and reducing risk for members, which adds high-tech guidance to a decidedly low-tech solution.
Brands rolling out innovative initiatives often get lost trying to chase the newest technology or the latest paradigms. Often, they pick a technology or approach first and then engineer a solution within that box to fit their needs. But success is often found doing things the other way around: identify the need, figure out what customers want, come up with the best method of connecting with them, and only then find a technology that allows all of that to happen in the simplest and most effective way possible.
- Always let customer needs drive technology and delivery choices. Not every consumer is ready for immersive VR or whatever the newest technology is, and it’s important to build services around the most common users.
- Making smart, data-driven decisions is the key to successful scaling. But brands need to remember that there’s more to data than digital data and look for creative and useful ways to measure legacy data, too.
Many women have less than one health clinic that offers contraception within a 50-mile radius. Nurx recognized how much that limited many women’s access to birth control and contraception and took a tech company approach to solve it.
Users consult with physicians online, put in their contraception request via browser or app, it’s reviewed by a Nurx-approved doctor in their state, then they receive their medication in the mail. Having made securing birth control easier, the company added other reproductive health services, including herpes treatment and STI testing.
The pandemic has brought increased demand for Nurx’s services. “We’ve seen over 50% increase in birth control requests, 100% growth in STI treatment and testing requests, and huge increases in emergency contraception requests,” says Nurx’s Vice President of Marketing, Katelyn Watson. “So we are seeing success from that perspective. We’re excited to help people and are trying to keep up with demand.”
Have an exit strategy
Although the pandemic has increased demand for telehealth services, Katelyn recognizes that companies can’t simply count on customers sticking around once the economy reopens.
“Telemedicine has probably rocketed 15 years into the future, and so has e-commerce. So we’re thinking about how Nurx can maintain our current position as a brand that people are loyal to in a world where we will probably have hundreds of other competitors, like health systems and providers, in the future who will be trying to start doing what we’re doing,” she says.
This highlights how important it is to be strategic about not just how to maneuver through the pandemic, but also how brands will maneuver out of it. For Nurx, its services and delivery methods probably won’t change dramatically, but the post-pandemic world will be much more telemedicine and e-commerce-savvy. Planning for addressing a growing pool of competitors, and a customer base with more options, needs to happen early if brands hope to maintain any growth they’ve experienced as a result of COVID-19.
Adding the human element
Nurx’s main competition isn’t other companies, for now — it’s in-person purchases. Customers shopping for health and wellness products especially are used to a high-touch environment — whether that be speaking to their physician about their concerns, being warned about possible drug interactions by their pharmacist, or being helped by a nutrition expert at a vitamin store.
The pandemic has made many of these businesses inaccessible, but as they reopen, customers may start returning to the familiarity of that high-touch/high-interaction environment. Digital health companies will need to get better at that if they hope to continue growing when traditional options become available again.
According to Katelyn, “A lot of the content — the ‘we’re here for you’ — in the human context is more important than ever right now.” Nurx has become very proactive about reaching out to customers personally in one-on-one chats to help with their inquiries or to explain when they have to substitute their normal brand for a generic medicine. This personal touch helps bridge the divide between the old way of getting health services and the new and is instrumental in growth going forward.
Customers respond to the personal touch during this time of crisis. According to AdWeek, brands should be thinking more like first responders than marketers, providing care and comfort during a time of crisis. It seems to be paying off for Nurx. Katelyn reports, “Our customers say, ‘Nurx really saved me. In a world where everything is so uncertain, that was the one thing I could count on,’ and people will remember that long-term I think.”
On how Nurx adds a human element to their work:
- Fast-growing brands never rest. Even a significant lead can be reduced quickly by determined competitors — always look for new ways to innovate and stay in the lead.
- Digital doesn’t have to mean impersonal. Consumers still value human touchpoints, even if the human is on the other side of a monitor. Look for ways to provide those personal, human touchpoints to build stickiness that competitors can’t touch.
The Future of Health and Wellness
The pandemic has done a lot to disrupt the health and wellness vertical. It’s made it impossible for some companies to continue using their old business models, but it’s also made it much easier for companies to embrace new business models to grow. It’s exposed cracks and injustices in the way health and wellness is administered, but has also shown a path forward to a more equitable world. It’s forced people to distance from each other, but brought patients and providers closer together with technology.
Whatever the future brings, and that whatever is still very much up in the air right now, it’s safe to say that health and wellness companies will be much different a year from now than they were even a few months ago. They will need to leverage technology to reach more people. They’ll need to listen to customers and be more attentive to their needs. They will need to look critically at the data, and let that shape critical decisions. And they will need to find a way to make computer screens and phone apps as personal as a chat with the family physician.
Brands that can do that — that can change and adapt rapidly but intelligently — will find that the disruption brought about by COVID-19 gave them the space to grow around and over long-established competitors. They will learn that challenges can also be opportunities. And they will find a way to thrive, no matter what comes next.