Season 1, Episode 10: Transcript
Angela Greenwell: Welcome everyone. Thank you for joining us. You’re listening to Atlanta Business Impact Radio with Veanne Smith. I’m your co-host, Angela Greenwell. Atlanta Business Impact Radio is a podcast that showcases some of Atlanta’s most innovative and forward-thinking business and technology professionals.
In our first season, we take a deeper look into the world of healthcare IT. In today’s podcast we get to look inside a local Atlanta hospital to see how they are using marketing initiatives to engage with us on a one-on-one basis, anticipate our needs and to ultimately provide better access and service to the Atlanta population. Both Veanne and I are very excited to welcome, as our guest, Lee Echols of Northside Hospital.
Veanne Smith: Welcome everyone. Thanks for joining us. This is Veanne Smith with Atlanta Business Impact Radio. In this episode of our podcast we will look at the complexity of healthcare in the United States today and how large hospitals are finding ways to engage with us on a one-on-one basis.
I’m excited to welcome Lee Echols from Northside Hospital as our guest today to talk on this topic. Lee is the vice president of marketing and communication at Northside Hospital. He oversees the organization’s programs in physician practice marketing, media relations, social and digital media, employee communications and issues management.
Prior to coming to Northside, Lee served as senior vice president of Edelman, managing the firm’s crisis management practice in the south-east. He is the former press secretary and long-time counsel to Andrew Young when he was the mayor of Atlanta and a United Nations ambassador. Hello, Lee, and welcome to Atlanta Business Impact Radio.
Lee Echols: Thank you, Veanne. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Background in Crisis Management
Veanne: One of the things I want to start with is, when I was reviewing your background, visions of Olivia Pope on the show Scandal came to mind. She’s known as the gladiator or the fixer. Everyone brings her their problems and crises and she has to figure out how to fix it. Do you ever feel that way about your background and the things you’ve done in the past?
Lee: Well, great question. I get asked that a lot. I think the crisis management field is something that you really have to have a special knack for. It’s certainly not cut out for everybody. Ironically, it’s a very simple practice area for our business.
I’ve always felt like there are three main things to focus on in crisis management, honesty being the first, speed being the second and solution being the third and perhaps most important. The thing that’s changed the most of those three tenets of crisis management, I think, in my career is speed.
Veanne: Speed. I knew you were going to say speed.
Veanne: Everything’s fast today.
Lee: It’s fast. It comes up behind you, to the side of you, in front of you and sometimes you just have no idea of where it’s coming from. That’s part of the challenge of that world. I think in healthcare the ability to manage crises and difficult issues well is as important as it would be in any business that I’ve ever been associated with. Being in healthcare with Northside Hospital, I have the best of both worlds, at least the worlds that I really enjoy being in.
Veanne: I can see that. Well, I guess when you think about it there’s nothing more important than lives, right? Just critical, crisis management, it’s at the end of the day when you’re dealing with people’s lives, right?
Lee: That’s right. Not just from the communications side of a crisis. I mean, obviously healthcare is all about crises. The vulnerability that we all have when we’re ill or facing surgery or facing a terrible disease. There’s nothing more crisis than that.
Lee: On the clinical side, we deal with it every day. On the management side, the communication side, we have to talk about it. We have to explain it. Sometimes we have to solve it. I think the Olivia Pope analogy is a good one, although I’ve never seen the show, in full disclosure. I should probably watch it.
Lee’s Role at Northside Hospital
Veanne: You would probably enjoy it. You’d probably identify with yourself, I would imagine. Alright. Well, let’s segue that into, let’s talk about the here and now. Tell us about your role at Northside Hospital, if you would.
Lee: Well, Northside Hospital in Atlanta is a large healthcare system. We currently have three main hospitals. Our main campus in the north part of Fulton County. Another hospital in Forsyth County, which is northeast of Atlanta. Then a third hospital in Cherokee County, northwest of Atlanta.
All told, about 840 beds, 15,000 employees, 3,000 physicians, I think, either on staff or with privileges at our hospitals. Over 200 outpatient facilities throughout North Georgia. These include imaging centers, cancer treatment centers, private practice urgent-care centers and so on.
The funny thing is that as large as we have become, we recognize that we’re going to have to become even larger in the future. The reason is that access to healthcare is probably the biggest challenge in the healthcare environment right now. If you look at Atlanta, which is where we are, nearly six million people in the region. Explosive growth in all areas, north, south, east and west.
Hospitals really have to make very strategic decisions as to how we will care for this growing population. Access to care becomes even more important. How quickly can people get from their homes or their businesses to our facilities to have care, whether it’s emergency care or surgery or coming in for a tonsillectomy? That drives a lot of our growth strategy and the way we think about the future of healthcare.
The Changing Role of Marketing for Hospitals
Veanne: Excellent. I think sometimes they don’t even want to come. They want to be able to get care via telemedicine, right? I would imagine those are things that you have to consider as well, I would imagine. Well, let’s talk about your role from a marketing perspective, since that’s really where your focus is, one of the things you do. Can you talk to us about how the role of marketing has been changing in hospitals in the last few years, if so, I would assume?
Lee: Well, I think that, like any business, healthcare is being driven, in terms of marketing innovation, by what’s happening in the world of social media and online communications. I would say that as an industry, healthcare has been a slow adopter of a lot of those opportunities. Now, I think, with the genie out of the bottle, so to speak, we’re really making some very quick advances.
What we’ve learned at Northside Hospital is that our social media programming, which is still relatively new, has become a marvelous communications tool between us and our patients, between us and our patients’ families and between us and our communities. The many communities that we support.
It’s a fascinating daily exercise to tweak that strategy with social media and online communications and see what works. We are getting information from our patients in ways that we’ve never done before. It’s not always pleasant conversation. The huge advantage is that we’re able to respond.
As I said, solution, being one of the three tenets of good crisis management, I think, is a very important part of patient engagement and patient relations as well. That’s been a big, big uptick for Northside Hospital.
We’re also dabbling in mobile marketing. Never really done that before, until recently. We’re looking at things like iHeartRadio, Pandora Radio. We’re doing some digital programs with some of our traditional advertising partners like television and radio stations and print newspapers.
What we know is, five years from now there will be very few patients who come to Northside Hospital who will have ever read a print newspaper, spread it out over their desk or their coffee table at home. The information that they’re getting and the way they want to get the information is mobile.
I think that’s no surprise to most people who are in the marketing business. For the healthcare industry, the advantage is that we’re beginning to see our endless, and not just in our storytelling capabilities but in our doctor-to-patient communications and on and on and on. I’m not suggesting that one day you’ll be able to get your gall bladder taken out via your phone.
Veanne: That would be interesting.
Lee: We’re getting very close, now, to a very new environment of patient-physician communications. Of course, marketing is impacted greatly by all that.
Veanne: I was pretty naïve, I think, when I started thinking about healthcare a few years back, that I’m in this role of technology and we’re all engaging with people and mobile devices and all that. What about the aging population? They’re not using these devices. I think I’ve been incorrect on that. I think they’re using them as much as or almost as much as the younger population. Is that what you’re seeing?
Lee: That’s a really excellent point to discuss. If you look at what a hospital typically does, we’re in the business of healing people. Well, that means people from age zero to age 100.
Lee: We have a very large demographic.
Veanne: Huge demographic.
Lee: Pretty much everybody
Lee: What does that mean for marketing and how we talk to these people? We have to have a really good balance in our marketing mix. That’s one of the things that we’ve been really focused on at Northside in the last couple of years. We know that young mothers coming to Northside to have children for the first time, within moments after they deliver their baby they’re on Instagram posting pictures of it.
Lee: We have to understand and accommodate the way that they choose to get their information and share their information The older population, people who may be in their 60s and 70s, are becoming faster adopters of social media, as I’m sure you know. Facebook has one of its largest growing segments is folks who are in their 60s.
Lee: That’s either a wonderful opportunity or a little scary, depending on how you look at it.
Veanne: It’s both in my family.
Lee: Probably in a lot of families. I do think that the mix of marketing and the mix of communications for healthcare really has to be well-balanced, strategic and then we’ve got to be able to pull it off. We have to be able to provide information and content that’s meaningful. We don’t like to waste our investment in these things with information people don’t need or don’t respond to. The two-way pipeline that is at the heart of social media, I think, is really helping us do a better job.
What Challenges Are Hospitals Currently Facing
Veanne: Engagement, right? The key is engagement, right? It’s a two-way street. Well, let’s talk current events, if you don’t mind. There is a lot going on in the world today. Things are complex. All kinds of different political things going on. Just keeping that in mind, what are some of the challenges that hospitals are facing in relation to those sorts of things?
Lee: The thing that disturbs me as a marketer of healthcare, but also as the son of a physician and the grandson of a physician, is the rapid demise of small hospitals. Now, Northside is not a small hospital but we’re impacted by that reality.
United Medical Center in Washington D.C. just recently announced over 100 layoffs of its staff. Greenville South Carolina Health System, fairly large in a fairly large market, recently announced 400 layoffs of its staff and a 35 million dollar reduction in its capital budget. These are not small systems. These are mid-size to large systems.
Small, rural hospitals, two, three hours from big towns, are suffering. They’re closing their doors. They can’t recruit doctors and nurses to live in these small towns. Business has dried up in these small towns so there’s nobody there to be treated at the hospitals. They move away to find jobs. The school system suffers.
The ripple effect of a loss of smaller hospitals, I think, is not to be underestimated. It does have effect on other systems, which have to absorb the loss of these medical facilities, find places for patients who no longer can go to the hospital in their small community but instead have to drive two to three hours to Atlanta or Chattanooga or Orlando, wherever it may be, to get healthcare.
That’s something that we are feeling the impact of. I think the other thing that we’ve felt significant impact from is the affordable care act and the fact that many people who did not have health insurance four years ago now do. That’s a very positive development. The state of Georgia, where we are, I think, has signed up 600,000, thereabouts…
Veanne: I thought it was just under a million or getting close.
Lee: It’s working and we’ve felt the impact of that at Northside Hospital.
Veanne: How to be able to care for all those new people coming for care. That’s the challenge?
Lee: Absolutely. We have to accommodate rising volumes. I think that we do that extremely well because we do have some size to our healthcare system. We have a large number of outstanding clinical professionals so we’re able to take care of folks.
At the same time, in Georgia, I think we’re the fourth worst state in the country in terms of uninsured people, even after affordable care. Part of that reason is that we’ve not expanded Medicaid as part of the affordable care program. That’s just a choice of, let’s say, it’s a political choice. There is politics involved in healthcare, I’ll say.
I think the other thing that’s the big challenge for healthcare in the years ahead is managing innovation and technology. I think that you’re going to see outpatient facilities, for example, not actual hospital facilities, have much better technology.
Procedures that must be done in a hospital setting today, five years from now could very easily be done in an outpatient setting. The outpatient impact in healthcare is really increasing very substantially. That’s going to probably continue.
Veanne: From my little bit of exposure, it does seem like these newer facilities, they’re popping up and they are new. They have new equipment. It’s usually easier to get in and out of. The rising popularity, right, is going to continue, I would imagine.
Lee: I think so. Again, it’s back to access. It’s back to the access of care for the patients and their families. Outpatient facilities do this particularly well. Especially, I would say, with cancer care, for example, where you don’t always have to drive into a large hospital for your infusions, your chemo treatments and so on.
Outpatient facilities can be located very close to your house. That’s a very, very important thing for cancer care and helps you maintain your lifestyle and keeps your family closer to you while you’re having your treatment.
How Do You Prepare For The Future Needs of Patients?
Veanne: Alright. You’ve talked a lot about some of the things that you’re dealing with and facing. It’s kind of current but we also, I would imagine, are always dealing with planning for what’s going to be coming, right, in your role in marketing. We’ve talked about the population is aging. We’ve hit on a couple of other topics.
Maybe, could you explore a little bit further with me what you’re doing now to prepare for even some of the things you don’t know that are coming. I would imagine it’s a challenge but I imagine that’s part of your job every day.
Lee: It is. It’s a challenging part of the job, sometimes can be frustrating, but it’s always going to be there. I think that’s one of the wonderful things about healthcare. If you are looking for a career, let’s say, as a young person coming out of college, healthcare is where you need to be.
Veanne: Both together.
Lee: Which is very much the case with healthcare. Technology is driving a lot of healthcare job opportunities, as is clinical care, administration, finance, environmental services. All these things are very critical to the expanding healthcare environment of the future.
People always ask about the cost of healthcare in the future. I think that’s a very legitimate question. I think that there are many answers to, “Where will the cost of healthcare go?” I think that one argument is that more technology, more innovation, expanded services, greater access to care will in fact lower the cost of healthcare.
Hospitals and our clinical contributions are only one piece of the cost question. There are the payers. There are the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical companies, the medical supply companies. Then there’s the government. The regulatory, the oversight, the legislation that constantly impacts healthcare. Will that change in the future? Doubtful.
Veanne: Darn [laughs].
Lee: I know. Would that would be so for all of us. I think the reality is that hospitals as an entity need to work together. Of course, there are many wonderful associations of hospitals, medical trade groups that look out for legislative issues and things that can impact us from a regulatory and government standpoint.
The good news about the future of healthcare, Veanne, I think, is that the healthcare leaders in this country will always be at the forefront of medical advancement. The history of medicine has been nothing but innovation.
Lee: From the beginning of time. I think that will continue at an even greater pace. I think that as people become more knowledgeable about their own healthcare through the reams of online medical content that’s available to anyone, we’ll become smarter healthcare consumers.
Lee: That generally leads to better care, lower costs. We’ll see how that plays out.
How Are Data Analytics Being Used?
Veanne: Hopefully better educated about wellness keeping you out of the system a little bit more, too. That’s the hope, right? I’m curious too. I don’t know if you’re involved in this. Are data analytics being used? Are you seeing them being used to help determine how to get the demographics of where these facilities need to be to be able to serve all these new people in the population? Are you guys making use of data yet in a big way or just beginning that or do you know?
Lee: That’s a really great question. I think, from the marketing perspective, the wonderful outcome of digital marketing and digital communications is that the metrics are so good. They’re right there all the time and you can pull them out and discuss them any way that you would like.
We don’t have to make up numbers. We don’t have to make assumptions anymore about who’s reading our content online or who’s clicking through our digital advertising on iHeartRadio.
Veanne: You really have your own data that you can then look through and analyze and make decisions.
Lee: When your boss is an accountant, a financial whiz, that helps.
Veanne: It’s awesome.
Lee: From a patient recruitment standpoint, I would say that the data that we use for determining population trends… cultural trends and so on. We’ve always used that for strategic purposes. Now I think, again, that data’s getting so clear and available so frequently in an updated form that that’s going to really help us make better decisions from a growth and expansion standpoint.
How Do You Think Technology Will Be Leveraged In The Future?
Veanne: Well, we’re certainly seeing, in businesses today, the marketing and the technology being more and more intertwined. It sounds like the same is true in hospital systems. I always like to look to the future. Is there anything else that you’re anticipating or thinking about in terms of ways that you’ll be leveraging technology in any different ways? Anything there you’d want to talk about or share with us?
Lee: Well, I look at the state of Georgia as we’re lucky to be in this state as a healthcare provider. You could argue that Medicaid expansion should have been signed off on by our elected officials but it hasn’t been and it probably won’t be. We have a marvelous array of medical facilities, academic facilities, training facilities, medical schools in the state of Georgia.
Veanne: It’s true.
Lee: I think that from a standpoint of having well-trained physicians in the future, I think that Georgia is set up well for that. I do also think that our nursing programs in the state of Georgia. Kennesaw State, Georgia Southern have phenomenal nursing programs.
Our biggest single challenge on a daily basis is recruiting nurses. It is incredibly competitive to bring nurses into any hospital system in Georgia and, most likely, the United States. It’s incredibly in demand.
Veanne: Just because of the supply and demand issue or something more than supply and demand?
Lee: Supply and demand. You think about the number of people who come onto insurance roles in this country as a result of the affordable care act. All those people need nursing care and can’t be accommodated by the current volume of nurses that existed four years ago. Another growth pattern.
Georgia’s very lucky. We have excellent nursing programs. Northside is very proud to have some of the best nurses in the state of Georgia. I think in the future healthcare is going to be, number one, a fascinating business to watch and to analyze and to study. So much of what we’re doing can be applied to other businesses. From a technology standpoint, sure, but also from a human relations standpoint.
How are we going to continue to be close to our patients with such great growth and expansion and access to care? That’s one of the things that we struggle with in marketing every day. How do we still appear to be a small and approachable healthcare system when we’re large and geographically diverse? We work on that every day.
The Human Element of Healthcare
Veanne: The demand’s for quick care and fast solutions and easy access but we don’t want to lose the bedside manner and the relationship we have with our physician. That’s a challenge, I know, especially for providers that I know that do this for a living. They say, “Just don’t forget the human element. We can’t let that go. Technology can’t replace everything”, right?
Lee: Well, that’s one of the reasons that, I would say, that for every data point of digital marketing that we do at Northside Hospital now, we are equally active getting involved in the community. We sponsor more than 300 non-profit organizations and schools in the state of Georgia every year in some capacity.
We’re very, very proud of that. We partner with health and fitness organizations like BRAG, the Bicycle Ride Across Georgia. The Peach Tree road race. We had 500 Northside employees running the Peach Tree road race last year, in our first year of sponsorship.
Veanne: That’s amazing Good job.
Lee: Well, it was.
Veanne: That’s a lot of people.
Lee: It floored us. What it told us, though, was that by offering meaningful community programs to our own employees, it just strengthens that relationship going forward. That’s not a digital relationship. It’s not a mobile marketing relationship. It’s a personal relationship that is probably the best kind of grounding that you can have.
Veanne: Such an interesting conversation. I’ve totally enjoyed everything we’ve talked about here, Lee, today. Thanks so much for taking the time. It’s been totally my pleasure. For our listeners out there, if they would like to reach out to you directly to solve their problems or whatever, is there a good way for them to find you online or a way to reach out to you?
Lee: No guarantee I can solve their problems but Northside.com is our wonderful website. On social we’re @NorthsideHosp, H-O-S-P.
Veanne: Awesome. Well, thanks again so much. This has been just a pleasure of mine to have you here today.
Lee: Thank you.
Angela: You have been listening to Atlanta Business Impact Radio with Veanne Smith. I’m your co-host, Angela Greenwell. This program was brought to you by SolTech. For more information about the podcast, including other episodes, you can visit our website at soltech.net or find us on iTunes. Thank you for listening. We look forward to having you join us again.
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