Community engagement has long been touted as a viable strategy to meet the demands of a changing healthcare system. But as healthcare transitions from a traditional fee-for-service model to a more consumer-centric fee-for-value model, community engagement is becoming an even greater focus among design-minded healthcare marketers.  A healthy awareness of this shifting dynamic along with a deeper understanding of the needs and aspirations of the communities we serve, can help us build strategies for effective consumer relations in healthcare. 

What is community?

Merriam-Webster’s definition states that a community is “a group of people who live in the same area or a group of people who have the same interests, religion, race, etc.”

In our everyday working vocabulary, a community often has two dimensions. First, location, a physical place where people live and interact in proximity to one another. Second, shared characteristics, people who share common interests, beliefs, values, activities, and goals. While such a definition works well on a colloquial level, it’s not enough when our strategy involves community engagement, activation, and collaboration.

What’s missing is a critical third dimension. A community holds within it the power to affect change through ownership and shared decision-making.

Understanding the power dynamic

There are two ways to think about power in the context of the relationship between a healthcare brand and the community it serves.

First, power is finite and zero-sum—for one group to gain power, another group must give it up. We often look at power this way and fear the consequences of giving up control to another group. The other way to think about power is that power is infinite and, when shared, increases the power for both parties.

Traditionally, healthcare strategies have not tapped into the power of the community. Engagement with the community has often been a survey, an open house, a billboard, a website/portal, or an app. These models are top-down. Decision-making flows in one direction, from the hospitals to the community.

In many instances, the relationship emulates the clichéd relationship between the provider and patient. By focusing on this traditional model, hospitals run the risk of engaging “at” rather than engaging “with” the community.

An alternative model exists that brings patients, their families, and community members into decision making advisory positions. This model goes beyond the use of traditional marketing and encourages community decision making. This model empowers the community to take ownership of their own health.

Embrace your role as partner

If we are to make real headway in the realm of human-centered patient engagement, we must seek to impact the patient’s experience of health and well-being. We need to look beyond the 4 walls of the hospital by partnering with them to understand their lived reality at home, at work, and out in the community at large. We believe that the best way to achieve this level of partnership with patients (in any domain of healthcare) is to gain a deeper, richer understanding of their most pressing biopsychosocial challenges and needs. One proven way to achieve a more holistic understanding of the patient’s reality is by immersing ourselves into the context of their everyday lives. The methods and tools of ethnographic research allow us to observe their lived reality and explore their fundamental needs and motivations through in-depth discussion and other forms of elicitation. 

Tools of the trade

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “People don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.” This quote is a nice reminder to those in healthcare seeking to make a lasting impact on the health and well-being of patients. What we “do” for others and the way we care for them is going to have a greater impact than any information or knowledge that we can share with them. Sometimes “doing” just requires us to stop and listen, and to show genuine concern for that individual’s unique set of circumstances and corresponding challenges. 

Beyond delivering excellent care in the clinic environment, healthcare organizations might consider the following ways to create partnership and demonstrate care for patients and other members of the community.

  1. Gain access to values and realities by spending time to understand the lived experience of community members through in-depth, observational research. Bringing researchers together with patients (and other key community stakeholders) will help healthcare marketers better understand what really matters to the community. 
  2. Map the patient journey and uncover the key factors that drive decisions and behaviors related to healthcare. Mapping in this way helps us better understand the patient’s experience in the context of where they are now, where they’ve been, and where they’re headed in their journey with illness. From life before symptoms, to the onset of illness, to the moment a patient enters a clinic, to the formulation of their treatment plan; the history of a patient must be considered beyond the marks they check on an intake form.
  3. Integrate clinical and patient insights into the process of engagement. Deep knowledge of the patient’s lived reality will help us deliver the right information and the right tools at the right time. In the end, this will lead to better health outcomes for our communities. 
  4. Leverage community forums to evaluate your audience and spot emerging trends. Forums provide a safe and interactive space for members of your community to pose queries and discuss pertinent issues. Utilizing major forums and niche forums in tandem can provide an easy and efficient way glean insights on issues that matter to your customers and prospects.
  5. Implement telehealth tools that allow your patients to connect with you virtually and receive treatment from anywhere they have an internet connection.  This will increase access, safety and convenience for patients while cutting down the foot traffic within your hospital/clinic.  
  6. Empower patients to take ownership of their own health. Patients will need to be supported through education, activation, and higher levels of control over their own healthcare. If something resembling patient empowerment is the end goal, then the results we are looking for will only happen if the patient wants to be well in the first place. If the will to be well is in place, then and only then can they be properly equipped with the knowledge and tools to drive their own healthcare. This may require a shift in our collective mindset to a more proactive and preventative approach to health and wellness. 

Medicine is a relationship business

Remember, medicine is a relationship business, and lasting relationships are built on a foundation of trust. Building (and in some cases regaining) trust within our communities should be the first order of business for healthcare organizations. This is  especially important during these difficult times, where we’ve seen declining trust in authority as the source of all truth. Empathy, transparency and authenticity will all be critical elements to building, mending and maintaining trusted relationships with the individual patients and collective communities we serve. 

Many of the patients who make up our communities want to have a relationship with their healthcare practitioners. They also want to believe in the system of care that supports those individuals. When you are able to deliver services (and experiences) that people believe in, you also form groups of people who feel that they belong. To belong means to fit in a place or environment and to feel connected, have a relationship with, or respect something. This sense of community and the associated feelings of belonging to something bigger than ourselves is critical to the well-being of all human beings, and therefore will be an essential element of our ongoing march towards more impactful and meaningful patient engagement. 

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