Four Challenges Facing Health Care Marketers in COVID Recovery

September 17, 2020

// By Lindsay R. Resnick //

Lindsay ResnickConsumers want to know, “Who’s going to do the right thing when it comes to my health?”

We’ve been exposed! COVID shined a bright light on American health care — the best and the worst: gaps in its value chain, disparities in communities, advances in technology, changes in consumer behavior, and a culture of collaboration in crisis.

Markets are being commoditized, digitalized, and retailized. Health care is at crossroads, and there’s work to be done. And it’s an election year — a big one. Health care will be a dominant issue. For many, it’s far more important than immigration, education, and “law & order.” With the pandemic still looming and the economy struggling to move into recovery, health care affordability and access has every American asking: Who’s going to do the right thing when it comes to my health?

From communicating science to point-of-care delivery to health technology to public-private partnerships, adapting to a new normalcy will be a long, arduous road to traverse. The COVID recovery phase means making up for lost ground, recapturing missed opportunities, and preparing for changing business models and different market rules. So, what to do? Here are four areas of focus for health care marketers.

1. Learn to Sell Science

Anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, science deniers, and panic peddlers all pose huge threats to the trust and credibility that serve as the foundation of American health care: science. The result is a culture war during the most serious public health crisis in a century, fueled by political opportunists using science disinformation and conspiracy theories.

Widespread science denial is being used to influence public opinion around tactics to stem the spread of coronavirus such as quarantines, physical distancing, and face coverings. And there’s a groundswell of activity creating what’s become known as “vaccine hesitancy”: the reluctance or refusal to be vaccinated against a contagious disease such as coronavirus despite availability of a vaccination. Research shows on average, only 50 percent of Americans would get an approved COVID vaccine.1 The World Health Organization has listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 major global health threats.2 We have a trust problem.

Inside health care’s vast web of consumer-facing stakeholders — employers, payers, providers, drug and device companies — there’s a common challenge: educating, engaging, and motivating consumers to take a more active role in their health. That’s a pre-COVID phenomenon commonly referred to as health inertia: resistance to face personal health challenges, discipline to adhere to a plan of action, and determination to proactively deal with health issues.

Overcoming this is a matter of credibility and trust, particularly as the pandemic continues to occupy consumer head space. It takes a combination of evidence-based scientific information and emotion-driven communication. Ignoring, rejecting, or denying science has severe negative consequences for conquering COVID. And it’s an enormous setback for the health care consumerism movement.

So… “Selling” may seem inappropriate when combined with science, but don’t rush to judgment. There’s a crisis. Science is being undermined. Proven, evidence-based science needs help. We need to eliminate silos and bring together science and marketing. With this type of collaboration, organizations can unite the forces of science experts with direct-to-consumer marketers — chief medical or science officers working together with chief marketing officers. Science and direct marketing can help consumers make informed, socially responsible choices based on reliable health care content, in language they understand and in places they frequent. The integrity of science hangs in the balance.

2. Take Technology to Scale

Health care’s technology index is off the charts. The variety and velocity of digital and virtual innovation sweeping across the health care landscape are unprecedented. COVID was health technology’s Miracle-Gro. From virtual office visits to 24/7 remote digital monitoring to online pharmacy services, consumers and health care professionals have rapidly advanced on the health care technology maturity curve. It’s estimated that up to $250 billion of current U.S. health care spending could be virtualized.3 It’s technology with purpose to help consumers take ownership of their health — make it easier to self-diagnose a condition or symptom, change a health habit or behavior, enable compliance with a course of treatment, and interact with their community of care providers.

The innovators and investors behind health technology have lofty goals: reduce health expenditures, improve quality of life, increase productivity, manage chronic conditions, and advance diagnosis and treatment. Both startups and established companies are leveraging technology to break down barriers with wearables, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, virtual reality, and voice and video technology. And these tech tools cut across a broad swath of market niches: diabetes monitoring, caregiving, fitness, mental health, and much more. Technology is no longer narrowly focused on treating patients once they develop a condition, but on proactive wellness and prevention to inspire better health habits that help people live a longer, qualitatively better life.

So… The revolution is over. Digital has won. It’s now the nucleus of human connections. It’s where we find ourselves every day, where culture and business meet. Health care is for the digital consumer, whether Gen Z, Millennial, Gen X, or Boomer. They will not engage with a health care structure the way it was. They’re embracing technology and innovation for more convenience and better health outcomes. For health care brands it’s no longer about digital transformation. To succeed, they must renovate business models, reset value propositions, and reimagine customer journeys.

3. Fill Gaps in Care

Many lessons were learned grappling with coronavirus. But one thing was emphatically confirmed: An individual’s race and ethnicity as well as economic and social situation have a significant impact on their health and access to care. Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) such as nutrition and food, education and literacy, work and home, and guns and addictions, are factors that far exceed the impact of an individual’s biology or DNA. COVID took SDoH to a new level. For example, it’s estimated that the pandemic could push an additional 17 million Americans into a position of food insecurity. As it is, during the first four months of the pandemic, food banks nationwide distributed almost 2 billion meals to people facing hunger in the United States, an average increase well above 50 percent over prior years.4

While the number of acute coronavirus patients overwhelmed many providers, we continued to see a significant shift away from traditional hospital settings and physician offices toward an array of retail clinic, virtual health, and at-home care alternatives to cover access to care gaps. To complement this transition, we saw more prominent roles for nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and other care extenders.

The most publicized point-of-care success story emerging from the COVID crisis has been telehealth. Consumers saw supercharged efforts around awareness, education, and engagement for telemedicine. The result was a substantial spike in usage and reports show patients were satisfied. One projection has virtual health visits topping 1 billion this year.5 Telehealth has disrupted the practice of medicine and delivery of health care — and it’s here to stay.

So… Pre-COVID, payers, providers, and pharma were addressing SDoH, but not in a coordinated, systematic community effort. Addressing health disparities has to be part of every stakeholder’s long-term approach to solving for the imbalance in access to health services in underserved, vulnerable communities and by select population segments. And to avoid gaps in care down the road, the shift in sites of care means health brands must retool and support new, frictionless patient journeys across the care continuum.

4. Vote for Health Care

Whether Democratic or Republican, this is a health care election. There’s a lot on the line: Medicaid expansion or contraction, sustainability of Medicare and Social Security, price setting and access to prescription drugs, and eradication or continuation of pre-existing condition protections. More than 5 million cases of coronavirus in the U. S. means more than 5 million more people have a pre-existing condition!

Add to this mix COVID’s economic consequences resulting in record high unemployment causing significant drops in employer-based health insurance coverage. Estimates have upward of 10 million people being added to the pre-pandemic count of 30+ million uninsured Americans.6

In 2020, annual health care costs for a family of four reached $28,653.7 It’s no surprise that Americans cite “health care costs” when asked about the most important financial problem facing their family. Consumers are anxious and uncertain about the future of health care. Their concerns are heightened by divisive, partisan rhetoric. Will the organizations they depend on — health insurers, health systems, and life sciences companies — do the right thing? For these companies, COVID has called into question underlying business assumptions, go-to-market strategies, and customer priorities. Brands are threatened in turbulent markets, and for the foreseeable future, turbulence rules the day.

So… Government health care programs for seniors, children, veterans, low-income populations, and military personnel comprise a significant portion of American’s $3.6 trillion health spend. And government policy and regulation touch every health care industry sector. The next administration will have to address BIG issues around access and affordability as America moves through the COVID recovery period. The 2020 election is a health care election. VOTE!

Health Care’s COVID Recovery

2020 is taking a toll on consumer trust. Nationally and locally, COVID chaos, policy missteps, and inadequate public health planning are making recovery difficult. Health care stakeholders face an enormous challenge: changing the way customers think about them.

Yes, there are many health care heroes — payers liberalized benefits, drug companies swiftly invested in vaccine and therapy research, and dedication of care providers has been spirited and courageous — but the question, “Will you do the right thing for my health?” will still be met with cynicism and hesitancy. Now more than ever, companies need to interact with customers on their terms: know their preferences, help them navigate, and build trust through credibility. Done well, health brands can replace consumer cynicism with confidence, and hesitancy with inspired action.

Health care companies and consumers alike should prepare for unknowns as recovery slowly evolves in 2021. Social, political, and economic tensions will continue to shape opinions and guide strategic moves around the health care chessboard. But in a year of market reforms and customer uncertainty, there’s good news: Where there’s change there’s opportunity. Selling science, filling gaps, and scaling technology will bring authenticity and relevance to COVID recovery efforts — and, of course, voting for health care.

Lindsay R. Resnick, MHA is executive vice president at Wunderman Thompson Health. Email him at