Last month’s Healthcare Engagement Strategy Awards 2012 once again provided a legacy of knowledge and great practice shared by the people behind the winning initiatives. As experts from commercial and government healthcare organizations shared their experiences, it was clear that they had overcome common barriers and the lessons they learned will provide direction, or ‘pathways’ for others to follow.

In this article I will explore five pathways highlighted by the Award winners, who included AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, NHS Local, Pfizer, Roche Diagnostics, and Swaziland’s National Malaria Control Programme.

Put people first

Working in partnership with the Diabetes Hands Foundation, which operates social networks with combined membership of almost 30,000 people affected by diabetes, and a wider-reaching community of diabetes bloggers, it was natural for the team at Roche Diagnostics to put people at the heart of their initiative, which won the Healthcare Engagement Strategy 2012 ‘Patient Engagement’ Award.

Rob Müller, Associate Marketing Manager with Roche Diabetes Care, told me that listening to and connecting with people was how it all started: “Before going into the first [blogger] summit, we had set up a listening platform. We really just listened to the community, to try and understand what they wanted to talk about, and we were very transparent about it. We let everybody know we were there; we went in and told everybody, ‘Hi, I’m Rob, I’m with Roche, I’m here to answer any questions you have’”, he says.

For Simon Kunene, Manager of the National Malaria Control Programme in Swaziland which won the Healthcare Engagement Strategy 2012 ‘Life Changer’ Award, the new technology channels that have enabled the country to move toward the complete elimination of malaria required a new way of working in order to be effective. “We’re very focused”, he says. “In view of the limited resources that are available, we put interventions where we know they will make the greatest impact”.

In order for the technology to make a difference, health workers on the ground needed to make changes to their systems of working. “With health workers, the uptake of anything new is not always very fast. This was one of our challenges”, says Kunene. But the problems were at all levels of the healthcare delivery system; many doctors, for example, did not trust new rapid malaria tests which provided results immediately, so they would often continue to treat patients even when tests gave a negative result.

Demonstrate Outcomes

Kunene says that the role of people on the ground was a vital factor in the Programme’s success, so gaining their ‘buy-in’ was essential. It was important that they felt appreciated and understood their contribution, he told me.

“You must demonstrate the benefit of the new approach. Provide regular feedback to the people who provide you with the information – they must realize that they add value to the programme”, he says. “Once people feel appreciated, that they are contributing to the programme, they will definitely buy in. And give them feedback, so they see it’s working and realize their importance in the whole initiative.”

Demonstrating success was also important to John Pugh, Head of Online Communications at Boehringer Ingelheim, which won the Healthcare Engagement Strategy 2012 ‘Facing Customers’ Award for its Facebook page. Pugh says that sharing outcomes is a key factor in evolving the company into a more widely patient-focused organization. “The more success stories we have… it can only be compelling”, he says.

For Pugh, the sharing of previous successes from other social media channels had paved the way for the company’s Facebook strategy. “We’d already overcome the whole discussion about relevance of social media and ROI, because we’d already done so much work on Twitter and YouTube”, he says.

Have patience

Despite the track record of previous successes at Boehringer Ingelheim, and board-level support for innovation, Pugh says that it required a lot of patience before he was able to develop the Award-winning Facebook strategy. “I’d been trying to do Facebook for about a year before it came out… The biggest barrier was convincing the business that it wasn’t just a platform where people post personal messages, where friends connect; that it is now a communication channel where you have businesses on there.

Patience was a key requirement for other Award-winners too, as we have already seen in the challenges of implementing new ways of working among health workers in Swaziland. When I asked Simon Kunene what advice he would give to others, his first point sums this us: “be very patient.”

Get governance right

As a pharmaceutical company, when we talk about our medications, we also have to talk about their risks and benefits, which is difficult to do in 140 characters”, says Jen McGovern, AstraZeneca’s Director of Patient Assistance Programs, speaking about the company’s #rxsave Twitter chat which won the Healthcare Engagement Strategy 2012 ‘Open Dialogue’ Award. The regulatory framework that governs pharmaceutical communications has prevented many companies from venturing far into social media territory, but AstraZeneca’s Award-winning initiative was a truly open conversation in real time.

When I asked McGovern what advice she would give others looking to engage stakeholders in a real-time social media environment, she said that the key is in having the right policies in place, and communicating these both internally and externally:

Have a formal social media policy that aligns your company’s policies and values with the guidance from regulatory agencies such as the FDA; and be clear with all internal and external stakeholders about your social media policy and the ground rules for the social media event.  Let people know what to expect and how to engage.

Governance was also highlighted by Jonnie Turpie, Digital Media Director with Maverick Television, the company behind the NHS local digital service which won the Healthcare Engagement Strategy 2012 ‘Digital Health Services’ Award.

Health is extremely important to those delivering it and those receiving the services, so you’ve got to get that governance right”, he says, adding that the time invested to put in place robust digital governance policies has simplified the process of engagement for staff.

We spent quite a lot of time working through a lot of issues, and one of those is around information governance, to make sure that we can be absolutely clear about the information and the engagement that we’re encouraging, but also to make it simpler and that’s one of the things that the staff are finding useful.

Invest in technology

Turpie tells me that the other barrier that had to be overcome was a technological one. He says that the existing healthcare system infrastructure was not designed to handle the kind of rich media that the NHS local digital service required. “Things like video on health services has not been easy because health services systems have been set up to deliver X-ray images across the web and using their bandwidth for those sort of essential services, not information about engagement… it’s taken a lot of hard technological work behind the scenes but we’re now getting there.”

Investment in technology was a factor for the other public health initiative among our Award winners. Kunene says that while Swaziland’s National Malaria Control Programme used the latest GIS technology, other departments lagged behind. But, he says, the demonstration of results through innovation is now bringing about technology improvements across the whole public health sector: “…we are influencing the whole public health sector in the country now to show them GIS is the thing to do. So now they are taking it up, like with TB [tuberculosis] cases…we are influencing the whole public health system in the country when it comes to GIS application.

We’ll be exploring Pathways to Engagement in more detail and going behind the scenes of the Award-winning strategies to share great practices at Healthcare Engagement Strategy Summit 2012: Pathways to Engagement, a special round-table event for leaders in healthcare organizations which takes place in London on 26 June 2012. Find out more or reserve your place.

Meanwhile, for more immediate advice about implementing the lessons we have learned in over a decade of healthcare engagement strategy, you are welcome to contact us for confidential advice about your own situation and needs.