Healthcare authorities and expert sources of health information have had vitally important roles to play throughout the Covid-19 pandemic as misinformation circulates and the public look for sources of health advice that they can trust.

For Johns Hopkins Medicine, which is a leading source of healthcare research, expertise and treatment in the United States, the coronavirus pandemic proved to be the ultimate test of a newfound approach to online content as well as the digital transformation work it had been carrying out in partnership with customer experience management company Sitecore.

I spoke to Aaron Watkins, Senior Director of Internet Strategy at Johns Hopkins Medicine, about how the organisation used search and a new content ecosystem to make authoritative information on the pandemic easily accessible to the general public, how being ‘nimble’ allowed the organisation to provide health information in a timely fashion, and how its approach to communication and content has evolved as the pandemic has gone on.

Building a user experience platform

Johns Hopkins Medicine launched a new online environment about a year before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. This environment had been created through a joint effort from a digital transformation committee and the company’s IT team, focusing on all aspects of digital engagement – web experience, operations, patient experience, access and more.

The team also conducted interviews with faculty (Johns Hopkins Medicine encompasses both the private research university Johns Hopkins University and also its research-intensive medical school, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine) and healthcare leaders as well as patients to create content for the site. Watkins explained how Johns Hopkins Medicine was able to use the online environment to make the expertise of its faculty members accessible to the public:

“One of Johns Hopkins’ strengths is that our faculty are really leaders in research and education, but they often approach their work from their own unique viewpoint, or from a kind of organisational matrix. The Health section that we built in Sitecore really integrates all of that health content – the basics of disease, interviews with physicians and faculty, and more engaging content that allows us to educate the public broadly.

“Whether they come to Hopkins or not, we want it there as part of an experience to educate people, but also to help them find the pathways to the physician or faculty member who can best treat them. So that’s the work that we’ve focused on – we say that we connect the people of the world to the people of Johns Hopkins Medicine.”

The team identified that search was the best opportunity for them to carry out this work, and so Johns Hopkins built its digital strategy around what the public is likely to be searching for and how the organisation can surface its content in response to those queries. “By integrating content [into the site], we were able to dramatically increase our search engine rankings, and also create an ecosystem of content that would help us build trust, that helps people navigate much more based on their own interests and what information they most need at that point in time,” said Watkins.

“What we’ve seen as a result of that is increased pageviews and those kinds of metrics, and also traffic to some of the physician pages that we can convert to appointments.”

To achieve all of this, Johns Hopkins has focused on its CMS, which it refers to as a ‘user experience platform’ as a way of representing its shift away from what was previously a very distributed content environment with hundreds of disparate content editors towards a much more centralised, engagement-focused approach. “We really talk about it as a ‘user experience platform’ – that ability to not just present content, but to form connections between that content, and to leverage taxonomy and other assets to create a great experience.”

Responding to the Covid-19 pandemic: content hubs, search ranking and being nimble

Johns Hopkins Medicine began publishing information about the coronavirus outbreak at an early stage, which then gave the organisation a strong position in terms of search visibility as the outbreak progressed and became a full-blown pandemic. “One of the great strengths of the content team and the organisation is that while they might not have seen what this pandemic would become, they saw the need to put out information very early,” said Watkins.

“We published our first article on coronavirus in January of 2020. That was just a single page with very basic information; one of the things that that positioned us very well for was that by March, when the full extent of things was starting to reveal itself, we had that foundation in place; we were already ranking number one in Google for very basic searches. And so we leveraged that as a content hub.

“That was significant for us internally – again, our faculty tend to start producing content on their own in these distributed environments, but here, we truly began with a hub. We’ve developed more than a hundred pages of content since then.”

Vaccination guidance from Johns Hopkins medicine appearing in a FAQ rich result on Google.

Another key move that allowed Johns Hopkins to respond quickly to a rapidly unfolding crisis involved holding daily ‘huddles’ made up of crisis communications experts, media relations specialists, social media teams and video teams; representatives of this group had direct access to “the big four”, Johns Hopkins’ primary experts on infectious diseases. “We could quickly share content ideas, share content, have it reviewed, get feedback, keep the pulse on the organisation – additionally, it enabled us to access not just our voice-of-customer tools and listening tools, but those of different teams – the crisis communications teams, the social media teams – and just share what we were hearing and what we were thinking about from all those perspectives.”

All of these components – search rankings, a direct line of communication with infectious disease experts, and access to cross-organisational teams and their specialist tools – allowed Johns Hopkins to make information available when it was most needed and be more agile in this respect than it had ever been before.

“The search engine rankings that we were already experiencing allowed us to just be where [patients and the wider public] were and then build value around that,” explained Watkins. “Having content integrated and centralised in one area was really key for us. And the high volume of listening that we were doing and the data that we were all sharing was allowing us to develop new content extremely rapidly – for us, being a health system with a heavy faculty review on our content, typically it can take weeks or months to produce content.

“This situation really demanded that we be nimble, and we had an ‘all hands on deck’ approach that enabled us to achieve that kind of nimbleness in ways we never had before.”

Evolving communications

The type of expertise that Johns Hopkins has needed to provide, explained Watkins, has evolved as the pandemic has developed and people’s information needs have changed. “There was the early stage that was really just a, ‘What is going on?’ stage. ‘What is coronavirus? What can we do to protect ourselves?’

“This was followed by a second stage where things pretty quickly evolved into, ‘When should I come to the health system? How can you find out if you might be affected by this, and how could you get access to a test?’”

As the months wore on, Johns Hopkins also made sure that it was providing information not just exclusively on the coronavirus pandemic, but that also addressed people’s broader health concerns. “We were publishing content on why you should still care about your general wellbeing, and what kinds of tests you should not delay any further – mammograms, and other routine healthcare – and encouraging people to come in and providing information about access.

“More recently, we’ve had another surge of visits and content creation around vaccine information: one, dealing with vaccine hesitancy – and listening to our audiences, especially people of colour, and encouraging them to get the vaccine at the earliest opportunity – and also, thinking about health and wellness among people who have had the vaccine. What does this mean for your life now, not just from a ‘yes, please continue to wear your mask’ perspective, but also, we know you’re dying to get out – can you go to the gym? What other aspects of your wellness have you been thinking about, and how do you approach those?”

Vaccine-related content sits alongside other information about the coronavirus pandemic and general health advice in the health section of Johns Hopkins Medicine’s online environment. (Source: Johns Hopkins Medicine)

Johns Hopkins has seen particularly high interest from expectant mothers who are concerned about how they can have a healthy pregnancy and care for the child in the early stages after birth, and has created dedicated content and advice from that perspective throughout the various stages of the pandemic, as well as for other unique audiences like patients with epilepsy.

Thanks to its digital transformation work, Johns Hopkins Medicine has better support for integrated health content across its online presence than it has ever had before, and the Covid-19 pandemic has allowed the wider organisation to appreciate the impact and benefits of approaching content in this way.

The team has also begun creating personalised experiences for visitors who access Johns Hopkins’ Covid-19 information, conducting experiments within Sitecore where they try to surface other content that might interest that user. “We might lead them to content that we already have around healthy sleep, meditation, breathing, those kinds of things – this aligns with a CRM effort that we’re undertaking to better understand our audiences and develop stronger personas,” said Watkins. “I think our more integrated approach to content, combined with an improved understanding of the audiences we’re reaching, represents a big opportunity.”

Johns Hopkins also continually refines its approach based on user feedback: the organisation uses a survey tool, administered by ForeSee, that provides real-time feedback and satisfaction metrics based on how users feel about the web experience, patient emails and other communication, how they are treated digitally post-visit, and so on.

“We see very high experience measures around the vaccine and the information we’re providing,” Watkins noted. “We see greatest opportunity in just educating about access and how to get the vaccine, which is of course a problem that the whole nation is dealing with.”

Looking ahead

Johns Hopkins’ main focus for the immediate future is the rollout of its new CRM tool, which is due to take place in the next several weeks. “At that point we’ll really be coming back to these content ecosystems and thinking about how we can leverage them and improve them specifically for the audiences we’re trying to reach. And we’ll be revisiting some of those personalisation strategies that we applied on a broader level, really trying to narrow them to specific personas.”

Over the longer term, the organisation is concerned with making its content available across technologies so that it can be used by physicians in different ways, such as app development or precision medicine. Voice search is another big focus, as optimising for voice allows Johns Hopkins Medicine to provide answers to health questions that people might be asking via their smart devices. Watkins explained that Johns Hopkins ranks well for voice queries thanks to its overall strength with Google rankings: “It’s almost a byproduct of what we do. At the same time, we’re really just developing the strategy and strengthening our toolset around voice search – introducing Schema, really talking to the team about the tone of our content, where we need to adjust that tone, and what opportunities there are for us in voice search.”

Watkins believes that the healthcare sector as a whole needs to make sure it continues to communicate and be transparent going forward in order to maintain the trust of the public. “Health systems have learned that we’ve gained a lot of public trust over this past year, and we need to communicate and understand why we have that trust, and where we can improve – and just share data, whether it’s physician experience or measures around the system, with the public.”

As for broader digital transformation, Watkins has detected a “renewed focus” on transformation among healthcare providers, who now have a much better sense of what they can achieve with it. “Healthcare has a lot of opportunity with digital transformation, and I do think that the pandemic has really illustrated the strengths and opportunities for many healthcare providers,” he said.

“Telehealth is a prime example that physicians and health systems have embraced. We had to grow rapidly in the pandemic, and we’ve now institutionalised and built a strong team of physicians who are engaged in telehealth across specialties.

“There has been a lot of hesitancy among our faculty and physicians, because they want to provide a certain standard of care – but this experience has demonstrated to them that yes, they can deliver that standard of care using these technologies.”