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Lizzie Harris, Partner, Lippincott

Healthcare feels like it’s in a perpetual state of a renaissance. 

A decade ago, it seemed it was hardly spoken about at all.  People either had it and never thought about it, or lived without it, and worried about it constantly. According to Gallup’s “Confidence in Institutions Study,” 80 percent of Americans trusted the medical system in the 1970s. By 2015, it had fallen to 37 percent. 

In the era of COVID-19, people are more distrustful than ever, but we appear to have reached a tipping point. Pew Research Center’s most recent survey reveals that roughly 60 percent of Americans would “definitely” or “probably” be comfortable receiving a Covid-19 vaccine. A minor majority. 

If nothing else, this moment shows the depths of the trust fall in healthcare as an institution. Think about it. We’re a year in to the most pervasive, deadly pandemic yet and 40 percent of Americans are batting away the hand that aims to help them. A whopping 62 percent are uncomfortable being part of the first round of recipients. 

Is trust about science or storytelling?

There’s a lesson to be learned here, but it may not be the one that comes to mind. Alan D. Duncan, VP Analyst, Gartner says, “Data and analytics teams working on responses to the COVID-19 pandemic must communicate complex and often challenging analytical ideas to key stakeholders and to the public, who tend to respond emotionally rather than rationally.”

It’s a perspective I have found to be a universal truth across healthcare. A few years ago, in the shadow of healthcare’s last major shakeup, The Affordable Care Act, Lippincott set out to understand what made members emotionally engaged with their insurance. 

First, for the skeptics, let’s start by saying there are huge benefits to emotionally engaging healthcare members. Not only are the +1.6x more likely to be satisfied with their service, but they’re also 1.4x more likely to renew each year, and more impressively, 1.3x more likely to adhere to health regiments, like, say, annual vaccines. 

So, how can healthcare brands emotionally engage people in a service they typically only think about when something is wrong? After surveying over 3,000 members across major payors, the diagnosis was clear. The biggest driver of emotional engagement? They valued payors who made healthcare easy to understand. 

In fact, aside from affordable and quality coverage, all the major drivers of affinity were rooted in communications. 

You might have a brand voice problem

At their best, brands don’t just deliver information—they build relationships. And connecting emotionally takes more than staying on message. A brand’s voice and visuals—in every moment—have the opportunity to activate the brand and forge deeper emotional bonds with customers. 

In healthcare, those emotional inflection points are huge. The intent of communication ranges from “help me make a decision” all the way down to “just show me you care.” When communicating from a place of emotional intelligence, there’s an opportunity to pivot the most clinical moments to ones that drive connection and trust, create more conversational moments and even shift an experience to feel personalized. 

Putting emotional intelligence to the test

Any healthcare worker can say: diagnosing an issue is one thing. Curing it is another. 

To solve for the emotional needs of members, Lippincott worked with a major payor to define the most important moments within their member journey. Not the most high-touch ads, but the moments that mattered to members. Benefit overviews. Responses to claims. Notices sent after a health crisis. The results were staggering — there was a 50-point increase in the degree of clarity perceived by members, and a 71-point increase in the degree of humanity. 

If the path to engagement is emotional, what does that mean for communicators in the world of healthcare and vaccines?

1. Clarity is key. Confusion drives skepticism. 

Outlining the “why and how” is critical for healthcare communications. Patients and providers alike want to understand what they’re paying for—and more importantly, what they’re getting for that payment. With vaccines, that means diving deeper than efficacy percentages and taking the time to answer questions around what people are putting in their bodies, and why they should trust it: What’s MRNA? How did we get here so fast? What goes into the approval process?

2. Understand the audience(s) at hand

No company has only one audience, especially when it comes to healthcare. From the government/regulators to providers to the public, different people need to hear different things. With audiences that range from scientists to skeptics, starting with an understanding of who is on the other end is crucial to being heard.

3. Pair credibility with care

Often, the world of healthcare leans on numbers to tell a story, but framing data with empathy can make or break the reception. Case in point: when it came to social distancing and self-isolating in the early stages of COVID-19, a study from Brown University found that emotional appeals drove greater compliance from the public. This is nothing new. A 1998 study found that emotional engagement is a critical component of behavior change.

That’s where a brand voice comes in. Companies that stay on the message are inherently rigid and don’t give communicators the flexibility or guidance needed to respond to the insecurities and emotional needs of the public. Credibility is one thing. Trust is another. 

Want to get started? Ask yourself:

– Who are your audiences—and who are your audience’s audiences?

– What conversations are you trying to have with them? What are the outcomes you’re hoping to drive?

– What do they need from you in these moments?

– Are you connected to audiences as people first?

– Are you conveying you care about positive outcomes for the patient, not just the public?

The answer to some of these is bound to be no, or more likely, I don’t know. And that’s ok. Start by taking stock. Look below the waterline of “high touch” landing pages and advertisements to the lower-level moments where audiences are at their most vulnerable: claim denials, bills, negative life events. 

Times are challenging, but the ability to connect in the most sensitive moments will allow everything else to fall into place.

About Lizzie Harris

Lizzie is a partner and creative writer in Lippincott’s New York office. A founding member of Lippincott’s brand voice practice, Lizzie’s background—spanning non-profit, academia and branding— has set her on a mission to cultivate a more empathetic approach to customer communications. With a decade of experience across finance, healthcare, media and tech, Lizzie is a passionate advocate for using language to connect, not alienate, everyday people.

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