Tips for rural hospitals to get back in the game despite COVID

Jan. 17, 2022

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By Mike Milligan, president, Legato Healthcare Marketing

In late December, I was looking forward to settling in for a night of hoops, watching my beloved Badgers take on George Mason – a last-minute substitution in place of Morgan State, who had to pull out of the original game due to positive COVID-19 tests among its players.

But only a few hours before the UW-George Mason game, it too was cancelled because of COVID-19 cases – this time, it was Badgers players who came down with the virus.

It’s not an understatement to say that most of us have – understandably – spent the greater part of the past two years reacting to what was happening in the moment. With the Omicron variant in full force across the country (and the world), COVID-19 still impacts our daily lives, and adapting has become our way of life.

Yet, like any competitive team, your healthcare organization needs to anticipate the future, recognizing what’s developing down the road before it actually happens. That means getting back to business – just like the Badgers did a week after the cancelled games when they defeated Illinois State 89-85.  

Whether on the court or in the boardroom, a return to the basics requires looking at long-term potential – and that means reexamining your strategic and marketing plans.

Starting at Center: Strategic Plan

When was the last time you really took a good look at your strategic plan?

It’s a big document, but what’s in there is essential to long-term stability and growth; your strategic plan focuses on the health of your organization. It also outlines your goals – while your marketing plan provides the details about how you’re going to achieve them – but that plan won’t do you any good unless you’re following it.

Your strategic plan includes a comprehensive market assessment of information, including demographics, market position and competitive presence, service lines and trends, and opportunities for growth. This information is essential to tell you where you’re at – and more importantly, where you want to go.

It centers on measurable goals and results – and data is crucial to that. It’s imperative to know how to make data-driven decisions to drive revenue. When analyzing data, start by reviewing your existing patient base and its healthcare needs, as well as trends in your primary service area; the more you understand your patients, the better you can customize your services and patients’ interaction with your organization.

In addition, use anticipated demographic changes (i.e., growing, shrinking, aging, etc.) as a basis for projecting service volumes while also referencing historical patient numbers. Likewise, take a look at competitive presence and determine if there are opportunities to meet the service needs of area residents – or if there is an offering in a nearby community that is drawing business you want to redirect your way.

Keep in mind that your Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) provides valuable insights such as community input – buy-in from the people you serve –  and prioritizes local health concerns and needs. It can also forecast changes in patient utilization in order to prioritize future growth.

For example, if you know your community will be seeing a large percentage of retirees in the next 5-10 years, your strategic plan might include an expansion of geriatric services.

While your CHNA isn’t a substitute for your strategic plan, it can definitely inform it: Your CHNA is required and contains valuable data, so use it to impact your strategic plan and set new measurable goals for the long-term.

Moving Forward: Marketing Plan

When it comes to moving forward after the past two years, refamiliarizing yourself with your strategic plan should be followed up by revisiting your marketing plan to ensure that you’re supporting your organization’s goals with a cohesive marketing strategy.

A marketing plan that aligns with a strong strategic plan can generate a coordinated approach that effectively reaches your organization’s short- and long-term goals. Assure yourself that your marketing plan focuses on profitability, access, growth and how each priority aligns with your strategic plan.

Everyone wants to maximize their budget, and to do so, there are a few key factors that all organizations want to pay particular attention to – and this is especially true for those with limited marketing dollars. For example, at Legato, we recommend that our rural health partners focus on the following aspects when developing their marketing plans:

  • Internal reviews, market and competitive analyses
  • Situation analysis (aka SWOT Analysis)
  • Competitor analysis
  • Primary research and service line prioritization

Since your marketing plan establishes your service line priorities, many organizations find it useful to break service lines into three tiers, with Tier 1 encompassing about sixty percent of your marketing resources, Tier 2 about thirty, and Tier 3 with a roughly ten percent allocation. Priorities can be ranked by importance based on criteria such as market readiness, profitability and differentiation.

When all is said and done, make sure your marketing plan:

  • Identifies objectives
  • Develops strategies and tactics that support the objectives
  • Executes creative development – then evaluates it to measure ROI

For instance, Legato works with our clients to measure: volume increase or decrease of a service line or procedure over a specific time; overall facility revenue; revenue from the promoted service line or procedure over a specific time; and website and social media analytics to help determine the most effective strategies moving forward.

Post-Game Summary

Think of your strategic plan as an extensive to-do list, and your marketing plan as detailed directions about how to achieve the goals on your list. Revisit these plans often rather than hope you’ll be able to remember – and execute – everything you want to do post-COVID.

A marketing plan that aligns with a strong strategic plan can help your rural hospital generate much-needed revenue – now. Remember to stay disciplined: Focus on objectives and service line prioritization. If it’s not in the playbook – don’t do it.

UCLA’s legendary coach John Wooden famously noted that “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail” – returning to fundamentals such as your strategic and marketing plans means making sure that you’re doing what you can now to help you down the road, just as the Badgers’ victory over Illinois State will help them when Bracketology time rolls around in March.

COVID-19 is still with us, but it’s time to get back to business – as usual. Reach out to me via email or call 920-544-8102 ext. 101 if you have questions about evaluating the effectiveness of either your strategic, or marketing, plan.