Selected Podcast

COVID-19 Conversations: Spectrum Health’s Story of COVID-19 Preparedness Featuring Holly Sullivan

Date: April 01, 2020
Spectrum Health’s senior director of strategic marketing Holly Sullivan describes how her organization is preparing for COVID-19 and how the strategic marketers are playing a key role in communicating critical information, partnering with others, and transforming processes to meet new demands.
COVID-19 Conversations: Spectrum Health’s Story of COVID-19 Preparedness Featuring Holly Sullivan
Holly Sullivan
Holly leads the development and implementation of a strategic marketing framework at Spectrum Health that directly links the organization's strategy to its marketing activities and brand experience. Holly's work supports the creation of outcomes-focused marketing programs that assist business units in achieving their goals for consumer acquisition, engagement and retention. Holly is also the SHSMD Board President.

Bill Klaproth: SHSMD members play a critical role as to the organizations and communities they serve. This special edition of the SHSMD podcast is part of the COVID-19 Conversations Series featuring members’ stories and resources in an effort to provide insight into how some organizations are managing this unprecedented crisis. Listen, as SHSMD Executive President Diane Webber, talks with Holly Sullivan, SHSMD Board President and Senior Director of Strategic Marketing at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Diane Webber: Well, hello Holly. Thank you for joining me today during some of these most challenging times our country has ever faced and I know how hospitals and health systems are at the forefront of dealing with the Coronavirus and COVID-19. And I really appreciate your time today. Thank you for joining me. Could you please start by painting for me, sort of a broad general description of what's going on in your community and at your organization with COVID-19?

Holly Sullivan: Well, you know, we, lucky enough, I mean we are preparing we have not, we certainly have COVID patients, but there isn't high growth right now. And we're located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. So we've been working to prepare and obviously there's, you know, there's a lot of anxiousness about this growing. But we're very hopeful that we're making a lot of preparations. We're getting ready for this. We were, you know, out in front, you know, creating a virtual screening process and being, getting ready with ways of testing, you know, collecting specimens in our ED that was separate from our regular ED. And we also just announced yesterday that we have now planned to increase our capacity significantly with some of our contingency planning. So, you know, we're in the mode that we're executing on all of the ways to increase capacity and to communicate to our community about what we're doing and how we're there to help, you know, feeling like we're looking at this thing coming, but we're feeling like we're as prepared as we can be at the moment.

Diane Webber: And how do you think the community is doing right now?

Holly Sullivan: Yeah, well I think, you know, obviously there is a lot of tension and anxiety, and you know, people are home and they're not used to being at home for long periods of time like this. There's an anxiousness about the disease itself. There's a lot of fact out there and there's a lot of fiction out there. There's, you know, there's a lot of myths, so people are searching for what they can, you know, for a source of truth. So we've been really focusing on getting our information out and providing that source of truth. So they're, you know, the community itself is obviously anxious and concerned, but also you know, we've been focusing on our preparations and the fact that, you know, we're in this together. And what I have been just blown away by is just the community response to our efforts and coming alongside, we had one organization, this community refurbish their, retool their manufacturing plant to make the hand sanitizer for us. And you know, there's many examples of businesses coming alongside saying, how can I help? What can we do? I was just sent pictures this morning of a whole street where a lot of healthcare workers are driving paths to the hospital. The community members put up signs that say, you know, thank you to the healthcare workers and we appreciate you, and things like that. So, you know, tense and anxious, but also extremely supportive.

Diane Webber: Awesome. Awesome. So let's talk a bit about your team and first of all, how, how is the staff doing? I know you have probably altered work arrangements right now for some members of your team, but while the hospital is still gathering their folks as needed,

Holly Sullivan: Yeah, we are you know, we are doing it as well as we can. We've moved to a seven day a week schedule because we really need to have people on at all times. So there is no such thing as a regular work week any longer. So we're really working hard. We split up our team. We have a morning call with everyone who's working that day to make sure that everyone knows what the important tasks on hand are for that day. There's a real importance, obviously to have a good communication process, so that we can work together. People are no longer working traditionally within their jobs. I mean, we've talked about needing to integrate, well, this has, this crisis has really helped us integrate across and people just help out where they can. And so we're managing our team with that morning call with the priorities and then an evening call with our leadership just to make sure that we're aware of where these things are in flight. And what are the important priorities coming out of our command center. So you know, I think there's, and I've been impressed with our team, just the focus and the priority being on this covert work has really pulled people together. And I just see people working together, working across, and making it happen every day. And so that you know, that's been a real positive story there, and getting things done in hours that would have maybe taken weeks. So that's been a positive.

Diane Webber: Yeah. Now I probably should've started with this at the beginning, but remind people of your title and how big your team is and kind of the major functional areas that you cover.

Holly Sullivan: Yeah. So my role with Spectrum Health is a senior director of marketing. So my lane is marketing including social and I have a team of about 15 people and also within our department, which is really what we're, you know, we're managing overall. We have all of our internal communications. We have our PR team. We have our community partnering team. We have we what is called health beat, which is our consumer stories. So and all of our mark tech support and your website, etc. So that all sits in our department and we have about 60 people across the department. Working on all of those functions. Internal and external communication and marketing.

Diane Webber: Great. Thank you for that. So how has your team contributed directly to helping to manage this pandemic?

Holly Sullivan: Well, we've really been on the front line communicating important information both in terms of internal audiences. So we manage an insight page for our teams that really provides a lot of the information we're getting out to our staff, our providers. We are sitting in the command center as the public information officer, making sure that things are properly communicated. Our organization is doing a mid day update. We put that presentation together to help support the information going out. We also do an end of day report out to all employees that gives important information for them to know every day, whether there's you know, yesterday we had a change in visitor restrictions, and so those are important things internally and externally to communicate. So we've been working a lot on that. We've also like I said, set up a free virtual screening process.

We have been working on marketing that the external community. Most of our work in marketing is focused on more PSA. You know, what can we get out there to the marketplace that's helpful, that can share resources? So we've been on the front lines communicating things. We've, you know, we've closed a lot of our primary care offices and tried to consolidate, so we can use staff elsewhere. We have stood up a lot more virtual options when we are communicating that out to the public because a lot of the concern is certainly on the COVID side. But what about if I have a non-COVID issue, where do I get care? How do I find access? And we're putting resources together to make sure people feel comfortable with virtual if they haven't done it before and finding easy ways to get them transitioned. And if they do need onsite care, what are my options? How do I easily find them? So we're managing all of that type of communication as well.

Including, you know, part of the team managing all of the media requests and just the information that everyone wants to know. I mean, how are we preparing and how are we at? What would happen in certain contingencies and how would we handle a surge in capacity? And, you know, things like that. So we're managing those relationships and interactions and also supporting leadership in reaching out to the business community and supporting those conversations. So there's a lot of things happening and we're involved with a number of those from a communication and messaging side, making sure that it's easily assessable, that it's clear and since the language and, and so there's many, many, many projects going down daily and just in that arena as you can imagine.

Diane Webber: Yes. Oh my gosh, it sounds like you're so, so busy and yet it sounds like your team has been quite flexible in adapting to a whole new way of working, and certainly a new focus in what they're working on. So how are you, and how are the teams staying strong at this time? Is there anything that is being done to sort of recognize them or help keep up their spirits at this time?

Holly Sullivan: Yeah, we, you know, we do daily grateful moments. And so we share you know, what's going on and you know, our chief marketing officer, my boss, he is very, very cognizant of recognizing people and thanking people. So we have a real culture around that and supporting each other, trying to you know, we're working virtually, but, you know, we use teams that we see each other when we're working. That helps. And I say that, you know, we all are united in a mission that is so critical that I feel like, you know, people have you know, maintained a really good attitude with what, you know, seeing that we're critical piece of this mission. So I think that that has helped. And I'm just, you know, like I said in the beginning, I'm really proud of our team because everybody's doing different roles, different things. People are volunteering to do things they've never done before. And I think that general spirit has really, you know, helped keep our spirits high in general and it, you know, really the collaboration and you know, support of each other has been critical.

Diane Webber: Awesome. Awesome. Well, thank you. On behalf of SHSMD audience as well, that's learning about some ways to keep up spirits at this time. So, you took on some early steps your team did in this process of really being ready for a potential surge and being ready for your community. What were some of the initial steps that you felt were really useful and that you recommend to others who are getting ready and then maybe bridge to what is your current focus right now for your team?

Holly Sullivan: Well, you know, initially we really tried to maintain, or tried to put up resources that helped communicate to people what was going on. You know, what is that source of truth? We wanted to maintain a calm, you know, as this thing grew in intensity. We wanted to make sure that they were looking to us to, as the you know, authority as we, as we, you know, we would have the accurate information to address their concerns. So putting that resource in place, putting up, you know, a page, setting up our website to provide all that information. So really the early focus was on making people aware and providing the right information to people. We had a lot of anxious people that were more worried well, so we wanted to make sure that we took care of that. We also put, we were one of the first ones to do this free screening.

And I think that also it was virtual. So we wanted to get our, our initial interest was to make sure people weren't you know, bombarding the hospital. And so we really wanted to focus on getting people options for virtual care, especially if they were just concerned. You know, we had, you know, we put that together in a matter of a couple of days. We started promoting it in a variety of community. Getting, you know, outreach and marketing and there was, you know, up to 2000 calls and many of them didn't go on for screening and part of that was testing, you know, issues, but the people that were looking for ways to reach out and better understand. And so we were really focused on that early on.

Diane Webber: Was that popular? Did a lot of people take advantage of that?

Holly Sullivan: Yeah, we had an immense number of calls. We started out with a local number and that was overwhelmed, actually we started out with a hundred providers roughly supporting that. And this has grown to over 350 providers supporting that line now. So really we, you know, has been an extremely positive, received very positively and we get a lot of call volumes and we're really happy those calls are coming in virtually and are not ending up in our ER or some onsite options. So that's where we were focused initially. And you know, as we now are entering in this phase, you know, we are, you know, we haven't gotten the volumes certainly as others have, but we know that, you know, things are growing out there. And so we're focused now on making sure that we are communicating all of the closures. We're, like I say, making sure people who have non-COVID issues know where to go. Because we realize this is not, this is going to take a little while to move through. So how do people get the regular care? We're trying to reach out to certain patient populations, like pregnant women and doing Facebook lives with our specialists to make them comfortable during this time. You know, behavioral health issues that we know, you know, are out there. How did they get the help that they need and putting in, you know, resources around that?

Diane Webber: So, let's take an example. Let's take an example of one of those. So let's say it's the pregnant women. What kind of communications might you pull together for that audience? What kind of work are you putting together for them?

Holly Sullivan: Well, we, so just yesterday we did a Facebook live with our specialists, our, you know, one of our OB doctors and just talking about the risks and talking about, you know, how do I get the care I need? We've put some virtual options in for prenatal care. What does that mean to me as a pregnant women? What if I need, you know, when I go to the hospital, what does that going to be like? Am I going to be separated from the COVID patients? You know, real concerns that pregnant women have. And so we reached out and asked for questions. We're just trying to make sure we maintain open communication lines with these you know, populations like pregnant women who still need, who still definitely need that care. So that's just a couple of ideas that we, you know, we've put out there for that. But you know, also just, you know, information you know, messaging and, you know, frequently asked questions. You know, we've done a flyer around that, things like that. So we're just trying to make sure women have the information they need at a critical time.

Diane Webber: It seems like you have a good pulse for the people in your community and what their unique needs might be, whether it's a segment or a persona. So you're doing a lot of good thinking on that. How is your team clued into when these needs arise? What signals do you get that say?

Holly Sullivan: Yeah, I think, you know, the real important thing is for us to be working alongside the clinical and service line leaders. And so, you know, we, my team specifically has you know, before this whole thing existed, you know, they're strategic partners to these service lines. And as we sit with them now, you know, we're thinking about, well, how do these unique populations get the care they needed during this time? You know, we have a lot of thinking around the COVID and that, you know, is a priority, but there's also a group of people who still need care. So we, you know, we're doing a lot of you know, we're, we're interacting and sitting with those leaders to say, what are the needs of those populations? How can we support that from a messaging and communication standpoint? How do we get our experts in those areas to this, you know, social distancing environment? How do we get them get the message out. I mean, obviously we've been using a lot of social for that.

And, and so that, you know, we also are sitting in the command center we have somebody there who is aware of all some of the bigger issues that leaders bring to the table. And so then that gets disseminated and we help to, you know, address those issues. So we're, we're all very connected in that way. And I think that helps identify what are some of those concerns. We're also doing a lot of social listening, honestly, Diane. Like, okay, what are people's concerns? What questions are they having? How can we address some of those questions? We're starting a new video series with our chief medical officer just to provide you know, some combing information around some of those questions that we're picking up which are changing every day by the way. It's a very nimble process, but you know, that's the other thing is listening to the community and understanding you know, what people's needs are and trying to be very nimble about addressing them.

Diane Webber: That's awesome. Well, I've taken a lot of your time. Let me conclude this a little bit and ask you to think about maybe one thing that marketers or planners in hospitals and health systems should be doing to get ahead of the challenges. What was one of the things that you're either very proud of that your team did that really sets you up for a good presence in your community or you know, something else that you did that you would strongly recommend others do?

Holly Sullivan: Well, it's hard to pick one thing, because there are so many things. But you know, I, you know, I'm really proud of us for, you know, jumping in on these unique projects and helping communicate them like from the free virtual screening, you know, putting out all the information on that and driving awareness so that people are you know, know where to go. I think it's important or also a huge endeavor, just managing our PR efforts and trying to manage all the stories that are important for the media to know. I think we have a whole consumer story segment or community story segment. Getting those stories out. I think that's another really important thing. You know, we have what's called Health Beat that does that, but capturing those stories along the way, I think that's going to be really important. Whether it's, you know, what are workers doing that's unique, you know, telling a special story about courage, like a healthcare hero. Whether that's a community hero where, you know, unique things the community is doing to support you.

Whether that's you know, something that our patients or consumers are doing. So we're really focused on making sure that we're capturing those stories along the way so that we can first be encouraged by them. Because we all need a little hope and encouragement, and inspiration. So not everything is, you know, informing and, you know, how do you get help? But we're really focused also in inspiring people because we need to keep people's spirits up and we need to be encouraged ourselves. So those are, I think, you know, important things that I think to stay ahead of. And to make sure that, you know, you're focused on not only getting the information out but also being inspiring to your employees and to your community.

Diane Webber: Yeah. Yeah. Can you think of one example of a story that inspired you in this process?

Holly Sullivan: Well, you know, I shared the one with the local company who, you know, turned around their whole manufacturing you know, plant to make hand sanitizer. But also just yesterday we wrote a story around there was a group of you know, community members, social distancing, we weren't, you know, close together, but just carrying signs and walking around the hospital, you know. Thank you. We appreciate you. So that's a cool story. We've also, that was really inspirational to me. So just knowing the community is there for support and we've also done, you know, important, you know, stories about, you know, how do we address teenage concerns at this time. So, you know, I'm inspired by our team thinking about these unique populations and their unique needs and getting the stories out that people need right now. Hard to pick just one.

Diane Webber: Wonderful. Wow, that's great. They're all wonderful stories. Thank you Holly so much for taking the time to meet with us. Holly is the president of the SHSMD board this year and she's doing a fantastic job from her desk at home and we really appreciate how you and your team and your organization are doing to deal with this crisis at this time. So thank you for your time today. We'll be glad to share that with our SHSMD members.

Holly Sullivan: Yeah, thanks Diane.

Diane Webber: Bye now.

Bill Klaproth: Thanks for listening and know that we are thinking of you during these unprecedented times. For general updates and resources on COVID-19 head to COVID19 and visit for a collection of specific COVID-19 resources for strategists.