Translating Data & Partnerships for Personalized Engagement, ft. Aaron Watkins


Join Alan Tam in an enlightening conversation with Aaron Watkins, Senior Director of Internet Strategy at Johns Hopkins Medicine, as they delve into the transformative power of partnership between healthcare marketers and IT departments.

Discover how Aaron’s journey began with the realization of untapped potential in collaboration, leading to groundbreaking shifts in technology strategy and patient experience enhancement. From the challenges of departmental silos to the pivotal role of IT in healthcare marketing, Aaron shares insights on fostering transparency, trust, and innovation.

Explore the evolution of healthcare technology and the strategic initiatives driving personalized patient experiences. Gain valuable perspectives on navigating complexities, overcoming obstacles, and anticipating future trends in the dynamic landscape of healthcare marketing and IT integration.

This conversation is brought to you by Actium Health in partnership with the Forum for Healthcare Strategists.

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aaron watkins translating data and partnerships for personalized engagement podcast

Aaron Watkins

Senior Director of Internet Strategy
Johns Hopkins Medicine

Translating Data and Partnerships for Personalized Engagement podcast

Alan Tam

Chief Marketing Officer
Actium Health


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Aaron Watkins (00:00):
That whole experience started to create a partnership that maybe we hadn’t needed to have or didn’t know we needed to have prior to that. Then that’s translated into this understanding of how our technology needs to evolve. We were able to just come to the table in a different way and with more trust from the start. Like I said, you have to be transparent, air the dirty laundry of what’s not working, how your data’s not normalized, and all these kinds of things. We all had the comfort level, maybe for the first time to do that.

Alan Tam (00:44):
Hello, healthcare. The challenges for healthcare marketers today are limitless, becoming increasingly complex, sophisticated, and, quite honestly, mind-bogglingly hard. One area of focus that many healthcare marketers have are department silos and building partnerships with the right stakeholders. As a health tech marketer, oftentimes that key partner may be the IT group. Joining me today is Aaron Watkins, senior director of internet strategy at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Aaron, I’m really happy to have you on the show. Welcome.

Aaron Watkins (01:20):
Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here.

Alan Tam (01:23):
So as the senior director of internet strategy, what do you do, and what are you focused on?

Aaron Watkins (01:30):
Yeah, so I’ve been in Hopkins for more than a decade now. So, of course, it’s evolved as healthcare has evolved. But my role has always been focused on the enterprise. It’s been focused on creating an integrated experience, a good user experience, supporting search engine optimization, digital marketing, and, essentially, just working across the organization to build relationships, to coalesce everyone around a shared strategy.

Alan Tam (01:59):
Right. Being an intranet strategy, I can imagine that your IT group and your technology group are probably your most important stakeholder, except for maybe finance. So tell me about that relationship and what you have done there to build up the partnership.

Aaron Watkins (02:17):
Yeah, thank you. I think it’s a key time in building that relationship. A lot of health systems have had their IT departments really focused on the rollout, the build of their EMR, and now they’re looking at other systems, not just in marketing but across the enterprise, and revisiting whether those are still the right investments for this time. So for us, probably about almost two years ago, we formed a digital front-door team partnering with IT. That brought together our patient services, our revenue cycle team, and members of our faculty and other advisors. We were really trying to think about the customer experience, the patient experience from beginning to end. It’s been really transformational for us. There’s always silos in healthcare. That’s what we’re all working to overcome. I think the big shift for us has been that even when we’ve had partnerships, they’ve always had us intersecting at different points.

In this, we’re operating with a broad strategy. Marketing is really bringing the user experience perspective, the customer perspective. IT is bringing a lot of the strength, the rigor, and a deep understanding of the technology across the enterprise. That’s really enabling us to have really difficult conversations about the experience that we want to create, the different technologies in it, and really how to plan a sequence for all of these technologies to be overhauled, which is essentially where we’re landing in a lot of cases. So that’s groundbreaking for us to be working that holistically in that kind of partnership from start to finish.

Alan Tam (04:23):
So I’m sure it wasn’t easy to get off the ground. What were some of the challenges that you and your team faced as you started looking into this and building out this partnership?

Aaron Watkins (04:33):
Yeah, I think just initially it’s daunting, right?

Alan Tam (04:37):

Aaron Watkins (04:38):
How much do you peel back the onion and just talk about the problems that you have? I think for us, especially having access in the room, having a rev cycle, we all had different parts of the appointment-making experience. Ultimately, that tends to be where the conversation leads, that we all had significant challenges, whether it’s just the resources to do the job, the technology, the marriage of our technology, and the disconnect. So we’re all essentially there, just peeling back the onion on that and coming to a common language on things. A good example, thinking of revenue cycle, when we look at our web satisfaction surveys, one of the biggest dissatisfiers that we see is, does this doctor accept my insurance? And that’s not something that we indicate, and we’ve tried to approach that in various ways over the years, and it’s not something that we can solve for right now, but revenue cycle looked at that problem differently.

Sure, it’s understandable. Customers are saying, “Does this doctor take my insurance?” But really what they’re asking is, “Can I afford this? What’s it going to cost me?” And so through this framework, we are able to talk about that part of the experience, talk about their role in authenticating a patient, and some of their pain points, from when the appointment is initially taking, how long is it taking them to assess. Does this patient have the right insurance? What is it going to cost? And like a lot of health systems, we have capacity issues with our doctors. Some you can get to in a few days or a week. Others you might wait months.

They’re working to solve the problem of, “Let’s not wait months to tell somebody what it’s going to cost them.” So it’s an example of how, as we’re thinking about that problem together, now we’re also able to think of the web experience a little differently. Can we start to put some context on our physician profiles and elsewhere around, like, “Hey, when you make your appointment, here’s what you can expect in terms of how long you’ll hear before what it costs”? So it’s a future problem that we’re working to solve, but it’s also pretty near-term for us. The way that we’re coalescing around that problem is the way we’ve never been able to do before.

Alan Tam (07:20):
Absolutely. I really like the examples that you’ve shared and how you’ve all come together. I know that many of us, perhaps listening in the audience, are starting to build those partnerships and starting to build those relationships with key stakeholders. What would be the key advice that you would share with these folks as they’re looking to build out a solid, strong, trustful relationship with their IT departments?

Aaron Watkins (07:49):
Being transparent. I think accepting that there’s always multiple leaders in the room, understanding what some of the different strengths are. Again, our IT department, they have a lot of rigor to their process, their relationship with the finance team to go through capital planning, and the process they go through there, through and through in that. We’ve actually been able to learn a lot and to accomplish a lot much faster by partnering with them. And there’s just a lot of times when it’s like, “Here’s my point of view. Here’s something I don’t know. Let’s all just be…” We’ve learned to trust each other in that process.

Alan Tam (08:39):
That’s awesome. I really like… I think trust is definitely a key part of building up that partnership. I wanted to circle back to something you brought up earlier, which is your digital front door initiative. Tell me a little bit more about that particular initiative and where you guys are with that.

Aaron Watkins (08:58):
Yeah, so I think a concept. Again, we were thinking about user experience. For marketing, we are really working to personalize that experience as best as we can, but I think what we are really pointing to is, “Here’s the journey that someone might go through in engaging our health system. It’s not a linear process. Here’s the website’s role in framing that experience. Here’s how we impact Google and the things people see on our site and third party sites, to really think about all the pathways by which people can engage our system.” Ultimately, what we were rallying around was a concept of right patient, right physician, right time. Sure, there’s more specific business objectives that you want to get to in terms of who has capacity, how are we rolling out online scheduling, and who’s already in that system.

At the same time, that basic framework is one that everybody understands. Our faculty, when they’re engaged, that the worst thing for them is to have a patient in front of them who is not a patient that they should be seeing. Especially among our specialties, we want to prevent that from happening. So there’s so many benefits to looking at it from that point of view. Where we’ve ultimately landed and, I think, had the most short-term success is rallying around the need to improve our physician data. So like a lot of health systems, as we’ve gone through acquisitions and growth, you’ve got multiple credentialing systems out there. IT had largely collapsed those into a single credentialing system, but it’s a system that needs to be updated. For us, we needed to understand with the Epic team, with that credentialing system, with our physician data platform, which has not just credential data but more consumer-friendly data, the bios, the videos, the headshots, the character, and the humanity of our physicians. What’s the source of truth for each of these data points?

Additionally, from a technology perspective, when we think about not just presenting those physicians on our website but making sure that that information is accurate across third-party websites. From a technology perspective, how are physicians associated with locations, and where does that data live? And so that exercise of just determining what do we want the credentialing system to hold? What does Epic hold today, how does that need to evolve, and what will our system hold? What’s the source of truth? Where are we going to share data, feed data? That’s been one of the most important exercises we’ve gone through. What’s changed because of that, and again, thinking about it, the relationship to finance. To go through a shared RFP in which all of our stakeholders are involved and that we’re bringing in all the vendors who we think are strongest together, collectively screening them. It’s an arduous process, but it has enabled us to evaluate the vendors together to really think about the sequencing of how we’re rolling out, credentialing the data platform changes to Epic over the next two to three years.

For me, again, how things have changed. 10 years ago, I had a pretty clear roadmap. I didn’t always stick to it, but I generally knew, these next five years, these are my priorities. That hasn’t been the case for me for the last few years, partially because of the pandemic and the hard turn we all took, but I haven’t had that collective roadmap. Now, when we are looking at physician data, we have it. It’s not just the technology. It’s what some of the resources we need. Where do we want to start thinking about particular user problems that we want to solve, and how? It’s such an opportunity for us to really approach this as a health system.

Alan Tam (13:31):
Absolutely. That is such a big initiative and tumultuous task. I’m curious to know what spawned this? Why did this become a key initiative? Where did it all start?

Aaron Watkins (13:44):
Yeah, I think the pandemic, as we all know, only highlighted the need for strong technology. There were scenarios that came out where we were able to partner with it and ways that we hadn’t, where there wasn’t that kind of urgency. An example, patient communication. We suddenly had to do that frequently, on an incredibly broad scale. That was not something that we were really equipped to do on that scale out of our EMR. They looked to marketing, and we had good dialogues about like, “Look, we can take this on.” But actually, we don’t want to destroy our safe sender score.

We got to have good dialogues about, “How are these lists generated? Do people know what they’re opting into? Here’s what we think is going to happen when we send this email.” We got to look at that. We got to see how our safe send score dropped, and they got to see how we recovered it as well. So it created a dynamic for us that one was very real-time, very action-oriented in problem-solving. Also, that we all got to see, “Oh, we have data. We understand our technology.” The things we were saying, they often came true, and we could solve them together.

So I think that whole experience started to create a partnership that maybe we hadn’t needed to have or didn’t know we needed to have prior to that. Then that’s translated into this understanding of how our technology needs to evolve, and we were able to just come to the table in a different way and with more trust from the start. Like I said, you have to be transparent and air the dirty laundry of what’s not working, how your data’s not normalized, and all these kinds of things. We all had the comfort level maybe for the first time to do that and for others to say, “Yah, you know what? That data’s good over here.” Or, “That data’s not that good anywhere.” We need to really address that.

Alan Tam (16:01):
I love that conversation that you’re having with your stakeholders and your partner, and quite honestly, I think, in hindsight, looking back, developing that partnership with it really also helps you not only break those departmental-level silos, but actually a lot of the data silos that existed as well, partnering with it to do the stuff that you need to do. You talked a little bit about personalized experience, and as I engage and speak with a lot of healthcare marketers, everyone’s talking about the personalized experience. I want to have a better understanding in terms of what do you mean specifically with personalized experience.

Aaron Watkins (16:40):
I think that’s really changing given the climate we’re in, given the new OCR guidance. On the backend, we’ve actually lost a lot of insight into what’s happening on our website temporarily. I think we’re having to look at our technology and say, “Okay, we can still do this with it.” We’re able to offer high level personalization on our website, a little bit of geolocation, a little bit of, “You’ve looked at this kind of content. We think you want more of this kind of content.” We had seen that evolving to really start to present, “Here’s doctors with capacity and the types of content that you’re seeking for.” But I think we’re reevaluating that.

Fortunately, when I look at the work we’re doing, that works probably about three years out, and I think we’re in a good time for us to evolve to this new guidance around HIPAA and to see how technology vendors are evolving to support that and to reframe how we’re going to approach it. We’ve talked a lot about trust internally. Personalization is all about trust. Consumers want content that they can relate to, that shows some understanding of the problem they’re trying to solve, that might show them the next step for them, that helps guide them, not just on our institution, but if you have this condition, here are the things you need to think about regardless of where you go.

That’s what personalization is about. It’s about building that trust, and I think, as freaked out as we all are about this OCR guidance and a little bit of maybe the short-term pain that’s putting us through and the stress, I actually think that’s going to be a real positive for healthcare. That it’s going to formalize some new investments, it’s going to strengthen the way we approach privacy, and three or four years from now, we’re going to be doing really cool stuff.

Alan Tam (19:06):
Yeah, I can’t agree with you more there. I think it breeds creativity and innovation with challenges like that. I want to take the personalized experience piece one step further because earlier you mentioned the right patient to the right physician at the right time. What are some of the tactics and strategies that you guys are adopting and utilizing today to make sure that the right patient is showing up?

Aaron Watkins (19:33):
Yeah, so there’s some complexity on our side. We’ve typically thought about that as the taxonomy that’s classifying our physicians, and that’s something that we’re investing in over the next year. We have a homegrown taxonomy that we developed within the web team with some partners about a decade ago. We’ve definitely stretched the limits of that taxonomy, and we’re in a period where we know there’s better taxonomies out there that we want to bring in. Additionally, we want to partner with the epic team and access and understand how that taxonomy relates to the physicians and how we can tap into the decision trees for appointment scheduling, how we can present doctors who have capacity, and probably more importantly, how we, as a group, can work with our faculty to create more capacity to whatever that means, whether it’s more mid-levels being involved in appointment making, whether it’s certain specialists who hold capacity. There’s various ways, and some of them are beyond my pay grade and my understanding.

One of the other great things about working with IT, and I found this at other AMCs, they have faculty members who actually hold technology leadership roles and bring that clinical understanding. So we’ve got that in our team, but not necessarily to the depth that they do and not in the way the clout that they carry when they’re having hard conversations with department directors or individual physicians about the ways that we’re taking appointments and what they have to do to be part of that, because everyone has some loss of control in that process. We all are having to compromise and maybe do our jobs a little differently to improve the patient experience. So to have faculty leaders alongside us all the time and who are actually rolled up with their… They’ve rolled up their sleeves in the technology, that’s creating a huge opportunity for us as well.

Alan Tam (22:10):
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. In terms of what you’re doing today, one of the key things that we as marketers typically focus on is metrics. How are we doing? Are we hitting our milestones? Is it successful? Do we need to alter and change things? And then, ultimately, here are the metrics that we want to deliver to our leadership team. As you approach your initiatives here, what are some of those core metrics that you’re using to guide you through that process?

Aaron Watkins (22:44):
So I think how we’re approaching it now, a lot of our service line marketing is driven by the service lines. So there’s the digital front-door context. At the end of the day, we’re still doing individualized campaigns, and in that, we’re often still reliant on the phone call. That’s where we are in our journey. So that’s moving at a different rate than the larger digital front door initiative. So we’re still doing those campaigns. We’re still looking at, “Are we driving the volume in those campaigns? Where’s the traffic coming from? What are we delivering?” We’re having to manually still match up a lot of, “These are the leads. Did they make the appointment and do the work that way?” That’s one of the problems that we want to tackle a little downstream.

Alan Tam (23:44):
Okay. So what continues to keep you awake at night?

Aaron Watkins (23:50):
I think the overall climate is a challenge right now. So many health systems, hospitals had their worst financial year ever. We’re dealing with some of those kinds of challenges as well, and so budgets are constrained, resources are tight, and quite honest, unlike anything I’ve experienced in my time at Hopkins. So that’s a challenge. The impact of that into our day-to-day capabilities is a strain on all of us. I’m really grateful that we are in a position to look at the bigger picture and look at it holistically in the way we are, so that we’re still making these big technology investments and thinking broadly about user experience in that way. But it’s scary. It’s scary to have our day-to-day operations being tightened so much at a time when we’re also massively building so much technology.

Alan Tam (24:54):
So now, as you look towards the horizon of the next 12, 18, 24 months, what are you seeing, and what are some of the things that you’re working on to anticipate and address what’s coming?

Aaron Watkins (25:11):
Right. Yeah. One, we will have much stronger physician data and the ability to act on it. We will be normalized across our tool sets, and I think we’re also going to have a much stronger position engaging with our departments around how they can leverage online appointment making and the pathways to do that. We have strong participation in that, but I think we’ll be in a position to be much more targeted to say, “All right, these are the business objectives of the health system, the hospital, the department, and so here’s how we need to approach those specific situations.” We’re also going through the final stage of a web migration as well. We will have a much stronger ability to personalize around our health content and to put the right information in front of our consumers. So that’s exciting to have those pieces together, and as I said, then adapting to this OCR guidance, I just think we’re going to be so much stronger in personalization.

Alan Tam (26:32):

Aaron Watkins (26:32):

Alan Tam (26:33):
Aaron, thank you so much for joining us today. I really enjoyed the conversation and all the insights that you’ve shared.

Aaron Watkins (26:39):
Thank you.

Alan Tam (26:39):
If folks want to continue the conversation with you, what’s the best way for them to get ahold of you?

Aaron Watkins (26:44):
LinkedIn. I’m on LinkedIn. I’m off the Twitter now, so LinkedIn.

Alan Tam (26:50):
All right, LinkedIn. Aaron Watkins. There’s only one. Aaron Watkins, I assume, on LinkedIn.

Aaron Watkins (26:55):
Maybe do Aaron Watkins, Johns Hopkins, but yeah.

Alan Tam (26:58):

Aaron Watkins (26:59):

Alan Tam (27:00):
So thank you for tuning in today, audience. If you would love to continue the conversation with Aaron, I highly encourage you to do so. He’s done some amazing work in terms of building the right partnerships with IT, and I think we can all learn a lot more from him. Thank you for tuning in today, and until next time. Hello.

Outro (27:20):
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