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Here’s how an award-winning organization earns loyalty—even during a pandemic

Penn State Health System has earned a rare distinction.

The multi-hospital organization, with facilities spanning across central Pennsylvania, is the recipient of this year’s NRC Health Excellence in Health System Loyalty Award.

This means that, among all of NRC Health’s more than 175 health-system partners, Penn State Health’s Loyalty Index (an aggregate of seven important metrics of consumer loyalty) comes out on top.

(Read more about our Loyalty Index here.)

Such success is never coincidental. It only arises through the studious cultivation of customer goodwill, and through taking the time to thoroughly understand, meet, and exceed the healthcare consumer’s expectations.

In any year, earning consumer loyalty is a remarkable achievement. But this year’s awards are based on surveys fielded through March 31, 2020—which means that Penn State Health managed to achieve this in the midst of a global pandemic.

How did Penn State Health manage to sustain their success in the middle of an unfolding public-health emergency?

Jerry Griffin, MBA, MPS, Penn State Health’s Director of Consumer Insights and Digital Engagement, sheds light on what the award-winning organization did to sustain consumer loyalty in a crisis.

Tackling the logistics

In its early phases, COVID-19 put many healthcare organizations on a wartime footing. As caseloads strained health systems’ capacities, leaders were pressed to rapidly reconfigure their entire organizations’ approach.

Penn State Health was no exception. Through it all, however, leaders found an elegant solution for dealing with the chaos.

“The pandemic tested us all,” Griffin says. “But for us, it really reinforced our organization’s ability to work together as a single, cohesive system.”

In the beginning weeks of COVID-19, Penn State Health established four Command Centers across its entire organization. These Command Centers served as a means to centralize decision-making and coordinate policies, ensuring that no individual facility was left to struggle without adequate resources or staff.

Furthermore, “the Command Centers were in constant contact with the central office and with each other,” Griffin says. “Each one got a daily call, every day at the end of the day, to ensure that everyone had what they needed.”

This stream of communications helped Penn State Health’s facilities form a united front against the pandemic’s challenges.

Fighting trepidation with transparency

From the beginning of the pandemic, Penn State Health’s leaders were attuned to their customers’ need for open, honest communication. They understood that local healthcare institutions were in a unique position to educate the public about the coronavirus. (NRC Health data has found, in fact, that consumers trust their local healthcare providers more than any other source of virus information.)

And they acted accordingly. “We made every effort to put our clinical expertise out there,” Griffin says. “We consistently made our team members available to the media, both proactively and upon request.”

The organization also produced content for paid media campaigns, as well as for its own digital channels, all aimed at helping the public stay informed and safe.

These steps may seem ordinary enough. But Penn State Health took its commitment to transparency one step further.

On its digital domains and on signage at its facilities, Penn State Health now shares how many people at their facilities have been tested for the virus, how many have received positive or negative results, how many have been discharged—and yes, even the number of fatalities.

“We want to be totally, one hundred percent open,” Griffin says. “We want to share everything with our community.”

These figures have served as an honest appraisal of Penn State Health’s performance—and a crucial means of earning consumer trust.

Getting virtual care right

 Finally, Penn State Health’s leadership was immediately sympathetic to patients’ safety concerns. They understood why many consumers would hesitate before stepping into a hospital again.

Accordingly, the organization accelerated the expansion of its telehealth platform, Penn State Health OnDemand.

“Originally, our OnDemand program was just for the ER, or for non-critical visits,” Griffin explains. “As the pandemic expanded, OnDemand expanded with it.”

Penn State Health relied extensively on NRC Health Market Insights data to guide this expansion.

For instance, leaders were able to learn that only 33.6% of patients in the state of Pennsylvania had ever tried an e-health visit before—but 52.9% of them would be excited if their provider started to offer it.

With this data in hand, Penn State Health’s leaders could proceed in confidence—even as virtual-care volumes spiked to unprecedented heights.

‘The number of telehealth visits exploded,” Griffin says. “The data that NRC Health gave us, especially the specific breakouts by age group, was invaluable in helping us think through how to move forward. It helped us make sure that we were making the right decisions.”

Their extensive research and development paid off. Penn State Health’s patients were thrilled to have virtual health, with 73.2% of customers rating their OnDemand experiences at 4 or 5 out of 5 stars.

Pursuing understanding

 Griffin’s words encapsulate the secret to Penn State Health’s success. Whether in ordinary times or in a crisis, their every step bespeaks a relentless focus on the customer. From consumer data, they glean actionable insight; from reliable intelligence, they achieve true human understanding.

“Our customers are loyal to us, I think, because they can feel how we’re focused on them,” Griffin says. “We’re focused on their health and their children’s health. That’s what gets you recognized as a leader in your market, and that’s what keeps people loyal to you.”

With such a strong ethic of service among its leaders, it’s no surprise that Penn State Health has earned the Excellence in Health System Loyalty Award.

Congratulations to them, and to all of this year’s award-winning NRC Health partners.