How Henry Ford Uses Technology to Drive Its Messages to a Growing Audience

March 27, 2017

// By Lisa D. Ellis //

Henry Ford Health System

Industrialist Henry Ford (1863-1947) manufactured the first affordable mass-produced car in the early 1900s, striving to improve the quality of life for many middle-class Americans. Now a full century later, the Henry Ford Health System is following his tradition by strengthening its marketing efforts to reach residents from all walks of life in the greater metro Detroit area, with the goal of ultimately improving their well-being.

And while the industrialist’s challenge was speeding up the manufacturing process to save time and money, the challenge facing his namesake health system is finding ways to cut through the clutter and help its voice be heard in this highly competitive urban climate. It’s accomplishing this ambitious task by relying on the latest technology, which allows it to effectively navigate the busy marketplace without taking resources away from many other pressing priorities.

Coordinating a Wide Continuum of Services

The Henry Ford Health System operates an integrated delivery system based in Detroit, Michigan, including its flagship hospital and academic medical center, Henry Ford Hospital, as well as four acute care hospitals; three behavioral health facilities; a 1,200-member medical group; the Henry Ford Physician Network, a clinically integrated physician network; HAP, an insurance plan with more than 675,000 members; and an expansive Community Care Services division. With such a wide continuum of services to coordinate, it’s crucial that the marketing department be able to let patients know about all of the offerings available within the system for all their care, and encourage them to take advantage of these services so that their medical needs can be met in the most seamless way.

Sheila Acker, director of interactive marketing at Henry Ford Health System

Sheila Acker, director of interactive marketing at Henry Ford Health System

One of the ways Henry Ford Health System is accomplishing this is by working smarter, not harder, by leveraging the digital technology available to it. Healthgrades, a Denver-based online resource for information about physicians and hospitals, has been instrumental in helping the organization to understand its audience and its needs, and to tap into the opportunities that exist in the area, says Sheila Acker, director of interactive marketing at Henry Ford Health System.

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“Healthgrades is our vendor-partner for customer relationship management (CRM),” Acker explains, adding that the health system has been working with Healthgrades since 2005, going back to the days when it was called CPM Marketing. Now, the health system uses Healthgrades to assist with direct mail and email programs in the market, and relies on its marketing automation tools to be more efficient and effective in its patient communications.

“We have three separate email/automation programs running. A new patient welcome [which Henry Ford developed with support from Healthgrades], an eNewsletter for one of our regional hospitals, and a heart risk assessment follow-up program,” Acker says.

“We’re able to track email metrics [from all of the efforts] and new patients, incremental attributed patients, contribution margin, and ROI, because everything is tied to our CRM system,” she says.

Reaching Local Patients

In addition, the health system uses a program called Healthgrades Premium-Patient Direct Connect (PDC). “PDC is a digital program that connects people actively searching for physicians in our service area with Henry Ford physicians,” she points out. The way it works, when visitors local to the Henry Ford area go to and search for providers or information, it helps them find Henry Ford options easily. “PDC captures local consumer demand, differentiates our physicians from our competitors, and converts intentioned site visitors to appointments and measures inpatient and outpatient visits,” she adds.

The conversion of web searches to patient appointments and encounters is easily tracked through demographic information captured during the initial call, so the effectiveness of the program can be closely monitored, she stresses. Patient data gathered can help guide future email and direct mail campaigns. This has enabled Henry Ford to achieve a constant digital presence in its service area and secure a positive return on its investment.

Employing a Results-Driven Approach

“Using email communications and marketing automation has allowed us to continuously engage with our patients, providing them with timely, personalized communications. The upfront planning and set-up takes time, but once the program is put into play, it can be easily tweaked and maintained,” Acker says.

She also points out that although Henry Ford has been working with Healthgrades for more than a decade, the organization recently explored other CRM vendor options, just to see what else was happening in the marketplace and what other tools were available. In the end, Henry Ford decided to stay with Heathgrades, which is the best fit for its current needs.

Tracking Results

“Healthgrades has very robust data given their experience with hospitals across the country and they provide proprietary predictive modeling technology. They also offer full service support on campaign development and deployment if needed, but their tools are also point-and-click and easy to for anyone to learn and use,” Acker says. As a result, Heathgrades’ marketing automation program for new patients has allowed Henry Ford’s team to complete a communication process very efficiently.

Christopher Catallo, executive vice president and general manager, hospital solutions, Healthgrades

Christopher Catallo, executive vice president and general manager, hospital solutions, Healthgrades

The results speak for themselves. In the first four months of use, Henry Ford had a 25.1 percent open rate on initial emails and a 2.51 percent click-through rate. According to Christopher Catallo, executive vice president and general manager, hospital solutions for Healthgrades, the results Henry Ford has seen exceed industry benchmarks. Henry Ford also saw that messages on specific topics such as heart health, low testosterone, and weight control all had a 20.7 percent open rate.

Follow-up outreach efforts for pharmacy-related services also had an impressive yield. The messages had a 32.2 percent open rate, and resulted in an average of two prescriptions filled for each patient who was targeted with this effort. Further, emails regarding optometric services had a 44.8 percent open rate.

In practical terms, all of this translates into more patients entering the system and becoming more engaged in the range of services offered, hopefully leading to stronger long-term relationships.

Following Henry Ford’s Digital Strategy

While other groups can learn much from the Henry Ford Health System’s successes, it’s important to understand that the results won’t come without an investment of time and energy at the onset of any marketing automation campaign, says Catallo. In fact, while marketing automation is a valuable tool for marketers looking to provide ongoing communications with the target audience, it requires an understanding upfront of who the targets are and what they care about, to develop messages and a delivery strategy that will be most effective.

The payoff for systems willing to invest the effort can be significant, he says, adding that the lessons learned by Henry Ford can translate well to other settings.

“Health systems across the nation are facing similar challenges. From competition to reimbursement changes, the landscape for all has changed. Add savvy consumers to the mix, too. With so many channels of potential communication, understanding what communication form is best utilized to reach these consumers has become challenging. To be efficient and effective, hospitals [like Henry Ford] are finding digital communications to be an avenue they must leverage,” says Catallo.

“Many are embracing engagement techniques that use marketing automation supported by robust data, very similar to approaches employed by commercial enterprises,” he adds.

The good news is that when you put in the work to effectively employ a digital strategy to drive your efforts, especially when it includes the type of tools used by the Henry Ford Health System, you can expect to get a good return on your investment, he says.

“Most hospital partners are looking at very similar formulas to calculate ROI, which may include differentiating their premium providers by utilizing our data and analytic sets, as well as leveraging the significant search volumes of,” he says. “By doing this, hospitals can increase their conversion rates, using both traditional and online methods. This gives organizations the ability to measure their successes in engaging, acquiring, and retaining loyal patients,” he says.

Lisa D. Ellis is editor of Strategic Health Care Marketing. She is a journalist and content development specialist who helps hospitals and other health care providers and organizations shape strategic messages and communicate them to their target audiences. You can reach her at

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