Leveraging Creative Partnerships to Support Growth for Rural Health and Critical Access Hospitals

By The SHSMD Team posted 04-16-2024 11:07 AM


Written by: Sally Mildren, CEO + Chief Strategist for ClarityPX

Let’s face it, there is never a lack of work to do in health care marketing. The challenge is compounded when you are a team of one or two. Rural health marketers and leaders face additional challenges than larger urban competitors who may have better systems, infrastructure and funding.

The American College of Healthcare Executives, says the health care CEO turnover ranges from 18-20% each year. That is hard on any organization, but on rural health and critical access hospitals it can have even more impact as recruiting costs and timeframes risk delay of strategic and operational progress.

As you all know, with the change of executive leaders or addition of new leadership, comes changes in approaches, priorities and plans. But none is more important that driving better utilization, increasing revenue and expanding brand reach. Strategically having an aligned marketing approach to the primary business imperatives of the organization is table stakes. Implementing and reaching those goals is challenging, but this is where creative partnerships can play a role.

So, how do you go about exploring and setting up strategic partnerships for your rural or critical access hospital and system?

Before you launch off to find partners, there are a few really important considerations and preparations needed:

Identify and prioritize your initiatives.

Does the “play day in the park” meet a need for the most important goals of the organization or is there another goal that needs to have your investment? Just objectively look at the outcomes of your initiatives carefully.

Rule of thumb, know what your top 2-3 business imperatives are and focus the majority of your budget and time on those initiatives. It’s so easy to spend an imbalanced amount of focus and effort on the wrong things. Know your strategy. Know your why. Know how this initiative will drive growth for your organization. Blanket “brand awareness” doesn’t count.

Be clear on what’s in it for your partner. 

You know your needs, but consider how can you serve the organization to expand their reach, promote their services or created additional visibility for their mission? Don’t be self-centered in partnerships - if an organization is going to support you, how are you going to ensure it’s a win-win for them too?

Leverage existing relationships.

If you have organizations that already support you in some way, how can you expand this partnership to create more impact for both of you? Maybe they do a toy drive every year for you, how might you “upsell” a different project or need and create a bigger relationship with them?

Don’t just do things the same way.

Find creative ways to do “what you’ve done” but differently, in partnership with more organizations.

For instance, one critical access hospital we work with holds a health week each year which includes cooking classes for heart health. Maybe you can partner with a local culinary training program and do a cooking competition (TV style) with your dietary staff and the students? Invite the morning a.m. TV personality to compete too. Make it memorable. It builds good will, expands the reach of your event and creates a little buzz.

Consider the “evergreen” things you do and find a way to expand it by creating new partnerships.

Partner within your organization too.

Sometimes we overlook the obvious internal partners that we should be working with. When was the last time you looked at your CHNA (community health needs assessment)? Are you partnering with your outreach or quality staff who are focused on those community health needs? It is my belief as a health care leader that the CHNA should be entwined into your marketing strategy. Why separate the two? It’s an internal win-win.

Now that you’re ready to explore partnerships - where should you look?

Here are a few areas that have successfully worked in our experience.

Local community teams or sporting events

As Director of Marketing for a community and rural hospital, we found great success with creating partnerships with local sporting groups. While not mind blowing of an idea, we took a little different approach to this partnership. There is a cost here, but typically we have found they are willing to maximize the impact and budget. Remember: win-win.

1. Sports Teams

At one small specialty hospital, we approached a minor league baseball team in the area and worked together to design a program that would address childhood obesity, a key initiative for our pediatric hospital. It ended up involving the design of a new mascot whose platform was about active play and child health. The engagement and partnership extended from the ball field to the community and resulted in amazing synergies and mutual benefits for our organizations.

In a rural, largely Hispanic/Latin community, we partnered with a new AAA baseball team and “sponsored” the July 4th game and the fireworks show after the game. We handed out logo’d 3-d glasses inside the gates and connected with a priority audience and their families. The exposure helped us build trust and capture new patients to the system.

Local leagues of sports might be a good place to connect as well. Maybe there is a soccer tournament in your community, how might you create a partnership to grow visibility for your hospital and help them by providing a PT trainer to help with injuries?

Regardless of who you pick, understand their audience and make sure it’s the right fit for your strategic priorities and that you can offer something in return. Sports are an easy place to start.

2. Health Insurers

When I was VP of Marketing and CX for a Medicaid health insurer, we got about 50 requests a month for sponsorship support from organizations across the state. (Hint, ask early in the year - the budget was almost always committed by Q2). 

But recognizing that we were splitting up our budget into such small bits, we were not having strategic impact anywhere. So we chose one platform, “access to healthy foods”, to address the food deserts and lack of nutritional food for many of our rural and lower economic members. We made several larger donations across the state, all supporting this platform initiative.

We leveraged our corporate foundation to make large investments in community food banks infrastructure, we organized our employee volunteer efforts around food bank meal prep, created growing gardens at several low income housing developments, we sponsored coins for the local farmers markets and our members could come buy fresh, healthy food near them. The key is that we were addressing the SDOH (social determinants of health) of our members and the communities we serve, in partnership with many other organizations.

The thing to understand about your health insurance partners is that they are also held to contractual and regulatory goals to improve health of the members and to document specific and effective outreaches to their members (HEDIS measures, NCQA certification, etc.).

In fact, in working with rural FQHCs and hospitals, we created, printed and mailed co-branded post cards to their entire market to promote services of these partners. WE PAID IT. Because we needed to demonstrate we were working on informing members about services available and trying to reach disengaged patients in their market. We needed them, they got to promote services at no cost to them.

Bottomline, insurers are doing a lot of the health-related work and outreach already. Partner with them - it will be worth your while.

One critical access client was trying to grow volume in the Extended Care Rehab census (a BIG money maker for the system), we helped create an outreach plan, talking points, updated website and provided contacts to get them in with the care managers of local hospitals and also the case managers at their insurance partners. This outreach led to opportunities to go in person and present their services, availability and answer any questions.

By coupling this outreach with a marketing campaign that included a local media partner, video, digital ads, targeted mailing outreach to key case managers and social media, the combined approach resulted in nearly double the census for this unit several months running. And the relationships built by showing up in person will result in ongoing referrals.

3. Media Partners

Local radio, TV and news outlets have varying ability to provide in-kind sponsorships for nonprofits and other rural initiatives.

For one rural hospital we were able to set up a quarter long radio campaign with a country station that tripled our buy, provided live interviews on line, announcements to our fundraising campaign, live radio remotes and additional partnerships that resulted in generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for a service line campaign.

Other talk radio or podcast options allowed up to share about new service lines and needs for the hospital and made a huge impact on volume, surgery and overnight census.

Newspapers have many options for elevating visibility (if you even do this) - we were able to put a full color flyer insert into the Sunday paper and a post-it note on the front page for a fraction of the cost of an ad. Get to know and explore the options with your media reps.

4. Local Business and Organizations

Whether a bank, a hair salon, grocery store, etc. there are willing partners all across your market. Be creative - there is help everywhere.

One rural grocery let us put a flyer for an event at our hospital in every bag that went out for a few weeks. All we had to do was provide the copies.

A housing organization that served many of our international and hard to reach members allowed us to conduct educational sessions in their lobby to help clients understand insurance and health services. In person time with multi-cultural audiences was essential to building trust.

A cultural grocery store allowed us to provide information to their customers to help them understand options for care in their area.

Local churches partnered with us to set up a “healthy congregation” program where we could provide information, events, activities and programs for the members of their church. 

As a health care professional in rural settings, there is never a lack of projects and initiatives. Learning to prioritize your strategies and then seeking the partnership of organizations near you is a great way to expand your reach, impact and budget.