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Executive Q&A with Dennis W. Pullin, President and CEO at Virtua Health System

Virtua Health’s mission is to help people “be well, get well, stay well.” As Dennis W. Pullin, FACHE, the organization’s president and CEO, states, “You can’t follow through with that mission without treating the whole patient first.” Following that logic, Virtua has implemented programs that extend far beyond traditional health care. Examples include a hair salon for cancer patients and a mobile farmers market to address food insecurity. We interviewed Pullin about his guiding principles and how he is positioning Virtua for future success.

  1. What innovations do you see advancing consumer healthcare experiences and ultimately improving consumer loyalty in the coming years?

We in healthcare find ourselves talking about two particular organizations that we’re trying to be more like, and they aren’t healthcare organizations: Amazon and Apple. Those organizations have accomplished what we all strive for—ease and accessibility. Our industry has to find ways to prioritize ease, take the friction out of what we do, and become accessible in a way that fits our patients’ needs.

I think we see these organizations as disruptors because they see opportunities that we have not yet taken advantage of. Healthcare has been slow to change; for the most part, we’ve functioned like a legacy industry. Rather than decide what we think is best for consumers or patients, we now recognize the need to better understand what they think and how they want services delivered.

Virtua is trying to get closer to its consumers and better understand their preferences through insight panels. We’re also looking at online reputation management and how we utilize CRM to track our consumers’ journeys, all in hopes of figuring out how to go from being a transactional partner to a real journey partner. That means better understanding consumers and their health needs. And not just being there when they need us, but getting to the point where we are part of their narrative even when there isn’t a crisis or need.

This shift is all about community connection. Most healthcare organizations are major economic drivers in their communities and are located where their employees reside. So these organizations have to think about how to make themselves part of the fabric of their communities: through places of worship, institutions of higher learning, recreational activities, and so on. Doing that brings us closer to patients and allows us to migrate from health care to wellness care, prevention, and health literacy. A big point of service friction is that initial online appointment booking, so we also want to take the friction out of making an appointment, whether online or via a call with one of our navigators.

  1. How will hospitals and health systems effectively bridge the information gap from consumer to patient that currently exists in the healthcare industry?

First and foremost, we could improve the way we communicate. We need to meet people where they are in order to get them to hear what we have to say. We need to be better listeners. I think that’s where tools like CRM help us track the journey and coordinate care.

I also support low-commitment entry points to emphasize the important role we play in the communities we serve. That includes things like free health screenings, open houses, support groups, and any sort of community-based education, in addition to providing patients with engaging online content.

  1. What will healthcare consumers expect from their patient experiences in the years ahead? And how will hospitals and health systems keep up?

People will expect ease of access via online scheduling and telehealth. People are also starting to demand price transparency, which is a challenge in health care. At Virtua, we are trying to meet this challenge with what we call a patient price estimator, which allows patients to request information about what a potential service might cost. These kinds of things are going to be an expectation in the future for all consumers.

We have to think more about how to support patients beyond just their clinical care. Virtua does this at the hair boutique inside our cancer center. Knowing that hair loss is often part of the cancer process, we are treating the whole person and providing emotional and physical support, in addition to medical care.

Because Virtua also sees patients who live in underserved communities, we think about how to address some of the social determinants of health. We provide food pantries and a mobile farmers market to those without healthy food options where they live. We also provide nutritional counseling. All of this is part of our approach to community commitment, to doing what can we do to improve the health and wellbeing of the communities that we serve. It’s not always about taking care of people when they’re sick; it’s also about identifying and counteracting social concerns, be it housing, transportation, food insecurity, or mental-health issues.

  1. What are some barriers or reasons why other organizations may not be doing these things?

I can’t speak to every other organization, but I can tell you that although most of us want to do these things, you have to find ways to make it happen. At Virtua, we made it part of our mission from the beginning: we are committed to helping people—all people in our community, not just a select few—be well, get well, and stay well. You can’t follow through on that mission without other types of programs, so we’ve designed our organization around partnerships with others in our community.

Our hair boutique, for example, is run in partnership with a local salon: the salon team raises money, and the stylists donate their time and talents. That way, the patients do not pay a thing for the services.

Our mobile pediatric unit relies upon donations to our foundation. Our food pantries and mobile farmers market are supported through a partnership with Whole Foods Market that provides us with produce at a discounted rate. Through programs like these, we’ve motivated others in the community to invest in the health and wellness of our consumers.

This is a heavy lift. We all struggle with razor-thin margins and tactics for reinvesting in the organization. But much of health care takes place outside of the four walls of the hospital or doctor’s office, so that’s where we have to go in order to be the most impactful. Fortunately, Virtua has a very supportive board, and also a supportive, 100-percent committed executive team. At the end of the day, the executive team has to make a commitment like this a reality.

  1. How will hospitals and health systems increasingly win share of voice (SOV) and improve loyalty among healthcare consumers? What will their strategies be in order to increase consumer loyalty, and/or what will they need to evolve into?

We first have to recognize that health care is personal, and then establish a delivery model that reflects that. People don’t want to question the quality or safety of an organization—that’s the expectation when they seek care. In order to set ourselves apart, we have to provide the excellent service that our patients want, and deliver it every single time.

Being accessible and making sure we continue to hear from our consumers, even when they may not have been totally happy with the experience we delivered in the past, is an essential part of that. We have to be comfortable with hearing from supporters and critics alike. Demonstrating that, along with our place in the community, is what helps us develop long-term relationships with our consumers beyond the transactional.

Earlier this year, NRC Health released our 2019 Healthcare Consumer Trends Report, in which you can find more examples like the ones above included.

How are you co-designing care for your patients and their families? How is your organization addressing the social determinants of health? We want to hear about it! Contact us at mcharko@nrchealth.com to schedule your interview.