What Did You Learn? Episode 16
Weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, Nemours Children’s Health System treated kids with some of the first cases of multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children or MIS-C, a pediatric disease believed to be linked to COVID-19.
Sarah Sanders, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Nemours explains how they handled sharing information with their pediatric families and the public at large about both COVID-19 and MIS-C. The health system also developed innovative approaches to giving children well checks and vaccinations during a time when parents didn’t feel comfortable taking them to receive care.
During this episode of “What Did You Learn?” Sarah shares how Nemours built upon the trust they already had with their audience to deepen those relationships during the pandemic, how they approached a second pandemic of social injustice during Black Lives Matter, and why their messaging will forever be changed because of what they experienced.
Ahava: Hi. Welcome back to “What Did You Learn?” I’m Ahava Leibtag, and I’m really excited today to introduce my colleague Sarah Sanders, who is the Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Nemours Children’s Health. Welcome, Sarah.
Sarah: Thank you, Ahava, I’m so happy to be here. Thanks for the invitation.
Ahava: Absolutely. It’s great to have you. So, it’s been 7,000 years.
Sarah: Longer, 10,000 years.
Ahava: 10,000 years. We’ve already evolved into a different kind of creature. A home creature. And, yeah, you’re right in the center of like, a massive, massive, unprecedented situation. So, what hobbies did you learn?
Sarah: What hobbies? Well, I started out puzzling like crazy, I can’t tell you how many 1000-piece puzzles we went through. And then one day, I sat down in front of a puzzle and I just haven’t looked at it since. It’s got three pieces connected. I just got puzzled out. So we definitely, for a couple of months, and I was sending them to my brother, both my brothers’ families and they were doing the puzzles. There was a time that you couldn’t order puzzles online. Crazy. I definitely did a lot of puzzling. And then because I was stuck inside because of COVID during the summer in Florida, I did a lot of swimming. Those were really two things that I did.
Ahava: That sounds really great. So let’s talk about this. You’re at a massive children’s health system and this thing explodes, and nobody really knows what’s going on with kids yet. What were the first few things that you said to yourself, “I better get a handle on this immediately or this thing is going to go out of control, and I’m never going to be able to get out ahead of it.”
Sarah: Well, we very quickly made the decision to really shut down clinical operations. So that was really the first step. It was just closing down the in-person visits that, and even limiting exposure on the inpatient side. So it was really from a health system perspective, how do we shut it down, but still give our patients and families good access to the care that they need. So, fortunately, we had a really strong, going into this, five years of building up a really strong telehealth infrastructure. So that allowed us to really switch on the dime. It wasn’t until maybe, the MIS-C, which is the version of COVID that hits kids. It probably was six or seven weeks into the virus until we really started knowing that it did affect children. Most children are asymptomatic, but some have very severe reactions. And it was sort of this mystery disease. Kids were showing up with weird rashes and trouble breathing. And so, we rapidly tried to, we actually had a couple of cases and our cardiologists, our cardiology specialists were able to really speak to MIS-C. And we actually got a lot of national interest in national placements. CNN, et cetera. We were on the Nightly News right during that time when these cases had been identified and they were trying to figure out what it was.
So I’d say that was the first big one that we were like, we need to figure out what this is and get sort of our specialists organized around this to speak to what it is. And then share it with our referring physician communities as well as our patients and families.
Ahava: Yeah, it’s interesting just listening to you talk brought me back to that time period, and it’s so interesting because I forgot how crazy it was like on a daily basis. We were just trying to figure out what we were dealing with. What was this thing? How did you catch it? And what also is sort of frightening to me, at this point, is that there’s a lot of things we still really don’t know. And I think we’ve gotten comfortable with just knowing we’re not going to know everything.
Sarah: Yeah, I think most recently what has really been, I think one of the most significant things for a pediatric health system is sending kids back to school and just not knowing what was going to happen. I mean, you’re a good parent, you don’t want to put your child at risk, and yet all of us know, after five or six months of our kids staying home, we know that that’s not healthy either. So I think from a pediatric perspective, what was really tricky was just sharing scientific knowledge, not making any judgments on families on either side. That was some of the most contentious, you know, kind of like, “You’re sending your kids back to school? What you’re keeping your kids?” It was amazing those parent boards and things that were having conversations. And it was just this huge flash point of judgment, your decision on either side. So as health system, we really had to just focus on what the facts were, focus on the science.
Ahava: So what do you wish, speaking of a confusing time, if somebody had come to you in December and said, “You’ve got to get ready for this. What do you wish that person had told you?” What do you wish you had known?
Sarah: You know, amazingly enough, I think about that time period, and we really describe it as this time period of two pandemics. I think we were able to very quickly work through the COVID piece because we had good collaboration and infrastructure in place, and we just it’s amazing, the amount of teamwork across the organization that went into that period. But on the second pandemic, in other words, the pandemic of social injustice, I think that one actually caught us off guard a little bit more, from my perspective in that we hadn’t really worked through what we would say about social injustice or social causes and then it was actually a perfect storm for us because we were just in the midst of redoing our strategic plan or five-year strategic plan when COVID hit.
Our long-term vision is really about transforming children’s health, about addressing social determinants of health. And certainly health inequities amongst that which just became so vibrant in a flash point during this COVID pandemic. But we hadn’t finished working through that. And so when we were sort of this, I don’t know, maybe conservative organization in the past, where we were very careful about what we said about what things and we were quickly transforming into this organization that says, “We’ve got to say more, we’ve got to do more.” But we hadn’t quite worked out what it was. I wish I had known that before it started. I really wish I had known that we really needed to be able to speak about that.
Ahava: One of the questions that I’ve been asking almost everybody is how did you deal with Black Lives Matter and everybody sort of came back and said that it was the hardest time. That, the pandemic, and then just that issue. And people talked about dealing with internal employees and how they reacted to it and hearing their stories and then also trying to figure out how to respond and how to sharpen the message and really say something. And I know that as somebody watching it, what I saw was that almost like the pandemic had prepared companies that when they said nothing, when the pandemic first started and they just sent out emails and they didn’t really say anything that was of value to anybody, when that social stuff hit, they actually did come out and say things that matter. They sort of we’re much more, I don’t want to say aggressive, but assertive in their communication. And it’s interesting to hear you describe, you know, in a very large organization across a massive geographic area, how you get on, like, how do you create cohesive messaging, because there’s so many different points of view, and I could see how that would be very, very challenging.
So as a communications perspective and somebody with real expertise in that area what did you do to sort of coalesce those communications? And did you have to do a lot of massaging or was there, where did you take your cues from leadership? Where did you take your cues from your employees?
Sarah: Yeah. I think both and everything. You know what I mean? We kind of did what made sense. But then in some, I think what happened was, we put out a supportive statement and our CEO came out with a very lovely message. But then, there were some people in our organization that said that it went too far and some that said it didn’t go far enough. So I think what it triggered really was more of a, “well, what’s next?” And we found as we were working on our strategic planning process, establishing a new vision for the organization that a lot of that informed the language and the initiatives that we built into our strategic plan. And so in day one, did we have it all figured out? No, but it’s certainly influenced where we were going in the future. So it was just almost perfect timing for how we were, even our brand values evolved from that time. We included an element of authenticity, which was not present previously. That really influenced our voice and how we talk to consumers.
And so I think we didn’t have it all worked out at the beginning, but it really triggered a lot of action throughout our organization to move forward to a place where I think we’d have a much better system-wide approach. We had, what happened was, we actually had a very advanced office for health equity and inclusion in our Delaware Valley infrastructure. But we didn’t have as much of that in our Florida structure. So now that became system-wide. We added, it is one of our pillars in our strategic plan, we included equity in our language there and a lot of programs that had support of that. So we did what made sense at the time, but we also didn’t leave it. You know, that sense of put your money where your mouth is, we definitely at all levels of the organization would be much more prepared and better prepared to handle that moving forward because we’re living it now, versus we were just maybe speaking it then.
Ahava: So did your organization, though at the ground level create communication directed towards children and families to help them work through these issues? Or was it on the strategic side of the business that you were really focusing your time and your energy?
Sarah: You know, we did both. We have this great resource that hopefully you all know out there called KidsHealth. They do a great job of explaining anything that a kid would have a question about. And so they really, they try to address what’s in the mind of the kid and try to answer those questions. So we certainly, within the children and family perspective, had that content created.
Ahava: Wait, and I just also want to say that the amazing thing about that site is that there’s also for ages. So you can find out how to talk to young children but also how to talk to adolescents. And to me, with adolescents and a child, it was very helpful whenever I had to have a discussion to go there, because my 17-year-old isn’t going to react the same way that my 11-year-old is going to react. So it’s good to have that. And I think that’s a really important thing that, you know, we have to remember about pediatric health, which is that you know, there’s babies, there’s toddlers, there’s school-age children. And then there’s these preadolescents, adolescents, and they’re going through a lot of different growth spurts, and addressing them differently is really critical. And they understand things differently and have different opinions.
Sarah: Yeah, really trying to be the voice of the child and try to live that. And as I was about to say, we have a great behavioral health program as well, and so they spoke and gave lots of external lectures about just the anxiety on top of COVID that this race situation, the racism situation was causing to children. And some of that is just heartbreaking to have to explain that. And kids should be so innocent and shouldn’t have to know that stuff.
Ahava: What do you think the main thing that you’ve learned is?
Sarah: What I learned so clearly was the importance of trust between our organization and those that we serve. And that sounds funny because we just talked about all these big things. But trust at the core is about the relationship that we have. And so as a part of innovation, we had to make, we knew that we have these families to care for, and they weren’t seeking care because they were too afraid, you know what I mean? So we had to message that a lot. Like this is how you, this is what we’re doing to keep you safe. This is what we’re doing to bring you the care that you need. You need to get the care that your children need, not only just in the moment, you know, urgent care, but the preventive care.
We were very innovative in terms of how we created a program to give babies their vaccinations. You know they were missing them for several months. So any kind of element that we felt like couldn’t wait. We found a way to bring that to the families just how to communicate with families.
We had just probably in the last year launched our CRM infrastructure with marketing automation capabilities. So again, stroke of luck actually, that we had just done that because we had to communicate with so many different, it allowed us to have very segmented data specific, data-driven communication strategies so we could communicate differently, with you know, families that had children with complex medical needs, we could, you know, communicate to them by market, because we have different services in different markets, by age group. As you just said, we were able to send out information to children to families who have babies versus that, you know, so having all that in place. It was like I don’t even think our organization really knew what we had invested in. So it really drove our data, our technology infrastructure forward from a marketing perspective. Using all of that to really create these sticky relationships, I think is a part of innovation that we needed to just move forward because it was necessary.
But it also engendered a great deal of trust between our families and our organization, so they trust us even more. I think we had that as a baseline, but I think that relationship as it relates to how we were able to handle that situation.
Ahava: So you and I are at a conference in a year and a half from now, or I’m coming to Florida and going swimming with you. We’re sitting there hopefully with a cocktail or two or three or four. I say to you, “What did you take away that you know is always going to influence the way that you approach your leadership, your marketing style, how you work with your executive team across silos? What’s that one thing that you know, really you got out of it more than anything else?”
Sarah: I’ve only been at Nemours for two years now, and we’ve been working on, rebranding our organization during that time. And what was really great was this was a good training ground or testing ground, I guess, for our new voice. And so when the pressure is on, you have to come out as a leader, and we definitely took on a new tone, a new voice. And what was exciting to me is that it was something that we brought up from the communications perspective.
Ahava: Sarah, where can people find you?
Sarah: You can find me on LinkedIn. I’m on LinkedIn.
Ahava: Well, thank you so much for being here. I really do appreciate it. It was wonderful to have you.
Sarah: Yeah, that was fun.
Watch Previous Episodes
Get caught up on our “What Did You Learn” series! Catch the most recent episodes below.
- Episode 1 feat. Amanda Todorovich of Cleveland Clinic
- Episode 2 feat. Ann Handley of MarketingProfs
- Episode 3 feat. Aaron Johnson of Penn Medicine
- Episode 4 feat. Gini Dietrich of Spin Sucks
- Episode 5 feat. Lauren Smith of UT Health
- Episode 6 feat. marketing consultant Chris Boyer
- Episode 7 feat. marketing expert Katie Martell
- Episode 8 feat. Jennifer Balanky & Jennifer Price of Sharp HealthCare
- Episode 9 feat. Andy Gradel from Wolters Kluwer
- Episode 10 feat. Tanya Andreadis of UCLA Health
- Episode 11 feat. Whitney Little of The Knot
- Episode 12 feat. Brandon Scott of Ten Adams
- Episode 13 feat. Carrie Liken of Yext
- Episode 14 feat. John Davey of Mount Sinai
- Episode 15 feat. Aaron Watkins of Johns Hopkins
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