Aaron Watkins, Senior Director of Internet Strategy at John Hopkins Medicine, looks at the role of digital experiences in supporting patients through the pandemic.
Digital technologies play a critical role in providing timely health information and access to care, often serving as the bridge between health organisations and the public. The pandemic has proven to healthcare systems that engaging with patients and the public online is now more important than ever. Increasingly, people find it easy to access information, make appointments, or receive communication from their healthcare providers digitally, through a website, app, email, virtual consultations or text messaging service.
From the start of the pandemic in 2020, every aspect of existence was impacted dramatically worldwide. Events unfolded rapidly. At Johns Hopkins Medicine, we recognised that the demand for information extended well beyond those turning directly to our health system for care. We needed to provide high quality health information about COVID-19 to the world.
Luckily, we already knew the importance of offering the right content to users on the platform of their choice, whenever they needed it. This philosophy was ingrained in our approach when it came to sharing information and guidance about COVID-19 via our new website, which was set up in January 2020. As the pandemic continued, we were able to effectively adapt and expand our online information and introduce telehealth services quickly, which enabled us to support the public and our patients throughout the pandemic.
Upping our SEO efforts
Our first move was to publish a basic overview of the new Coronavirus. In January 2020, working closely with infectious disease experts, we posted a one-page article called “What is Coronavirus?” By March of 2020, this page was ranking as number one on Google, and became the foundation for launching our Coronavirus website, which expanded over the pandemic to include hundreds of pages.
Often, people turn to search engines like Google to check symptoms before reaching out to their doctor - in fact, a study carried out by eyecare company Lenstore found that almost 60 per cent of Brits do so. Our website was designed more than a decade ago to provide health information from the full breadth of Johns Hopkins Medicine clinicians and researchers, and we’ve developed that content with a strong focus on search engine optimisation (SEO) best practices.
The foundation of our SEO research was built around social listening. Studying healthcare search trends revealed what is on the minds of the public, what the highest volume searches are, and what the intent of a particular search might be. Our team turns to search engine data whenever we create new content as a way of understanding public need.
Building a Coronavirus hub
In the early days of the pandemic, when reliable information was still scarce, it was crucial that we were able to disseminate content quickly and accurately, and that it was all easily accessible through our digital channels.
As the pandemic unfolded last spring, information changed by the hour. Internally, we conducted daily huddles and shared data – what trends we saw in search data, social media channels, and traditional media, and how that related to what we were hearing from Hopkins experts in infectious diseases and emergency preparedness and response. We shared information on a daily basis to create content in an agile way.
This meant our platform needed to be flexible and include content that served website visitors as close to real-time as possible, regardless of the device they were using.
We had worked with customer experience management platform Sitecore prior to the pandemic, and the content management platform we had in place helped us to continue to provide this timely, accurate Coronavirus information online.
We expanded our website by adding a Coronavirus hub, giving information about symptoms, preventive measures, impact on vulnerable populations, and ways to look after your mental health. This content hub allowed us to have all the information available in a single location, which was easily accessible to all.
As I write this, the content hub has received nearly 70m visits. We’ve also adapted to larger trends in the search behaviours of the public. We were able to provide a massive amount of information about the virus, the disease and symptoms, public health safety measures, when and how to seek care for other diseases, and the vaccine rollout. Google drove 73 per cent of the visits to the Coronavirus web site, which held number one and page one results on a variety of high-volume searches.
Personalising content for every patient
When engaging with an organisation, consumers today expect experiences to be tailored to their own needs and wants. This is particularly important for the healthcare industry, which is why we incorporated personalisation technology that enabled us to help people based on their individual needs, health conditions and wellbeing. For instance, if a visitor reads content about stress caused by the pandemic, they may be recommended more reading on longer-term stress management techniques.
Sitecore’s content management technology also enabled us to name, define and categorise our bank of content, and then score and profile it. We safely and securely collect information about how users are interacting with the website, which enables us to serve the most relevant and useful content to suit different requirements.
This ability to create, manage and serve content effectively also helped power a COVID-19 self-checker for the public. With our main goal to inform and support the public to manage their health during the pandemic, an important measure of success was traffic – and the self-checker received 1m page views per day in the early days of the pandemic.
The pandemic has been the catalyst for many healthcare organisations to embrace digital transformation and provide online services, some for the first time. Supporting patients remotely via telehealth technologies has been key and will likely continue to play an important role in healthcare in the future. For Johns Hopkins, being able to create, manage and serve the most relevant information and services to patients is the priority. Our digital transformation journey has meant that we’re now in the best position to adapt and enhance our online offerings during the pandemic and far beyond for any further changes needed in the future.