[VIDEO] John Davey of Mount Sinai on Healthcare Communication from the COVID-19 Epicenter

Posted on September 14, 2020 by in Digital Strategy, Healthcare/ Hospitals

What Did You Learn? Episode 14

This spring, when the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic was in New York City, Mount Sinai Health System treated thousands upon thousands of COVID-19 patients and returned more than 10,000 of those patients back to health. During that time, Mount Sinai’s healthcare marketing team created content to support patients, the general public and frontline healthcare workers.

“Our doctors and nurses saved New York City — and we had our part in helping with that,” says John Davey, Vice President of Marketing Technology at Mount Sinai Health System.

During this week’s episode of “What Did You Learn?” John shares how he kept his team motivated during the grueling early months of the pandemic, how they embraced the Black Lives Matter Movement while they were still in the midst of the pandemic and the factors that drove the more than 14 million views of their COVID-19 Facebook Live social media campaign.

Ahava: Hi. Welcome back to another episode of “What Did You Learn?”  I am very excited to have here my fellow SNL fan, John Davey, who is the Vice President of Marketing and Technology at Mount Sinai Health System. Welcome, John. It’s wonderful to have you.

John: Great to be here. Very excited.

Ahava: So, what did you think of SNL from March onward? Until the season ended?

John: I was happy that they made the effort, like so much else that we’re all living through, just the fact that they tried and they put something out there. I think I appreciated it. Was it as close to as good? No, but you know.

Ahava: Some were pretty good.

John: Some were very good.

Ahava: Yeah, I agree. It was just nice that I think it’s what you said, they understand there is a community of fans out there, and there’s a community of people who really rely on them for those laughs. And so I thought that just the fact that they really tried was part of it. It was like something again instead of feeling like “that’s Saturday night”.

Did you do any special cooking, baking, any new hobbies during quarantine?

John: I didn’t. But my 12-year-old son did, and he became an expert baker. Which made me have to be an expert, even more exerciser, than before, because he was doing a dessert a day. Sometimes, he was doing contests. He made two versions of brownies to see which one was better A or B. He was doing A/B testing. That was not, it was delicious, but not very healthy.

Ahava: What do you wish you had known? If somebody had come to you six months ago and said, “You’ve got to get ready. You’re not even going to believe what’s about to happen.” What do you wish you had known?

John: Yeah, I’ll start by saying, I’m glad there’s a lot I didn’t know. I think, in some strange way, it helped not knowing all of the actual work we had ahead of ourselves. It was a tremendous amount of person hour work that we had to do in a very short amount of time, and we were doing it with one foot on the dock, one foot on the boat, when we were, our command center, Communications Command Center, was in one room at first. Then it got spread out when people realized that wasn’t a great idea, to multiple rooms. But people were going in between rooms. And then in the middle of that, we were sent home to work remotely, completely. And so I think I would have wished we would have known some of the common sensical things about how to make this work remotely.

I thought, like many people before this, we could never do 100 percent of our job remotely. And, of course, we did. And we did it under the circumstances, and that was a great lesson to learn, so don’t be too sure what you’re sure about. But it was a tremendous amount of work. And I don’t know if I would want to know or my team to know how much work we had to do. It was, as you said, when the epicenter of the epicenter was in New York City, Mount Sinai was treating more COVID patients than any other hospital system in the world with the exception of one, Northwell. So, it’s our eight hospitals.

During the peak of it, we had thousands and thousands of patients. We have since then returned more than 10,000 COVID patients back to health. As we’re saying, for a lot of those people, unfortunately, their lives, are not exactly the same as what they were before.  As I said, just in shorthand, it’s all the stories we’ve all read, about what our frontline troops had to live through. And what they experienced, is unimaginable for the rest of us. And we did our part to support them, which made it all bearable. All the work that we did have to do knowing that they were there, putting themselves at risk for us to help.

But one of the big lessons I wish I would have known, because I would have been prouder about it, is how important a role communication plays, external and internal, during a health crisis like this. And how central a role digital communication is to everything. And how, we, my team was very proud of all the work that we had to do. But it was really helping.

Ahava: It’s interesting that you say that because the CDC actually says that a pandemic is just as much a health as a communications crisis as it is a public health emergency. And, so, I think that a lot of the marketers and communicators that I’ve spoken to have said to me, our executives have never understood the value of what we bring to the table more than they have after this. You know, it’s really given us a ton of respect and a ton of, you know, admiration for what we were able to do in such a short amount of time.

And you know David Feinberg, who is your CMO is an incredible leader in the space of healthcare marketing. How did he help you sort of do everything you needed to do and also make sure that people understood how important what you needed to do was?

John: I think it helped, as you referenced, that he’s been doing this for quite a while, and even though none of us have lived through this level of a pandemic, I think a lot of his experiences at all the other great institutions he’s worked at really helped. And it also helped that our institutional leadership had total faith and confidence in him. And the person who was running our emergency command throughout the pandemic, Dr. Jeremy Boal, he had a really interesting concept. He said we will be making mistakes. We cannot try to be perfect during this. We have to accept that we’ll be making mistakes. We can’t dwell on our mistakes as we make them. We can’t wait to do all that. We have to be pushing forward and moving forward throughout the whole process.

And, you know, one example of that is, you know, we didn’t have a platform that was easily accessible by staff members that was not behind a firewall. And we had a lot.

Ahava: Everyone was working from home.

John: Yeah, exactly when a huge number of us was working from home. The first thing we did was we moved all this content to the public, a section of the public-facing site. We labeled it for staff. But it was there, was out there for the public to see, and there were lots of potential issues with that. But it proved to be the right decision, and it became this critically important source for staff wherever they were to access, and they were accessing it on an hour by hour basis. And this is when, the policies and procedures that the Department of Health, and all the other regulatory agencies they were changing things in New York. One time, we changed policies three times in one hour, and we had to get that out. And you can see the staff who are relying on this, for them to keep up to speed with all this, what we were doing was providing them with some real guidance, and it was a trusted source. They knew to go to this platform to get what they needed to answer their questions. So that was that was great.

Ahava: Tell me how you kept them motivated. You know, I think a large part of motivation is you know, you’re all in the same room together or you have meetings. You have happy hours. You do things like that. Was there anything that you did as a leader of your team, which you feel you want to share with our audience that you had all this work you really were in the middle of it. Did you do anything that made your team keep going? Because, obviously, you got the work done.

John: Right. I think we did. Some of the some of the things we did were the obvious things where we were having regular daily check-ins, and we did it at the same time every single day, where we had a running list of items that we had to address and then to me what I tried to do beyond all that is wherever and whenever possible to connect us to the fact that our work, all the work we had to do and for weeks we were working past midnight every single night, seven days a week. We tried to connect them to the fact that there are other people in this situation who have nothing to do and they’re sitting around feeling helpless. We actually can help. We can help at this moment. This critical crisis moment in the world. And for New York City, when it was a crisis for the city and it wasn’t clear that the city was going to be able to withstand this. And it wasn’t clear that the health systems were going be able to withstand this, that we thought there was a good chance of any hospital being swamped. And we came close to that, a number of the hospitals, but we held the line. Again, our frontline staff.

And so it was me trying to connect the team and myself, to, we have a job to do that can help. We can do something. We’re not helpless. There’s, you know that the one portion of depression is that you feel helpless and you can do nothing to change your state. We could do something and, you know, we did. And I think it made people feel like they had a small but critically important role to saving the city. You know, our doctors and nurses saved New York City. And, they, by extension, saved the world, their portion of the world, and we had our part in helping with that.

Ahava: So, tell me, you’re sitting there, you’re almost, at this place where it feels like, okay, things are calming down a little bit, and then Black Lives Matter erupts. And you’re in New York City.

John: Yes.

Ahava: What was your reaction to that?

John: It was a crisis upon a crisis. And you’re right, we were not fully finished with the other crisis, which we’re still not. But in another way, both crises were not really something that just came out of nowhere and these were simmering issues for both, that had been gone, that had gone unaddressed for so long. And we needed to address both as a health system, as a society, as people, the staff members, as doctors, nurses and communicators. And so, our staff at our 8 hospitals, and our 400 plus locations and our medical school of 42,000 people, we have an incredibly diverse, vibrant staff. I think this was an issue of great importance to a huge chunk of our staff and to our leadership. And it was a second crisis that I think we quickly learned as communicators, at least that we should not be running away from this. We should be embracing this. Our health system leaders did, we participated in the moments of silence. We went dark for the blackout social media days, and we paused our campaigns as part of some of the Facebook work.

I think that was important work that had to be done and if we could have chosen to do it later? Absolutely.

Ahava: What do you feel is the most important lesson?

John: A couple of things, I think. One, like I said previously, you can’t be too sure what you’re sure of, and that applied to a number of things throughout this, but one I mentioned was that I was sure that we couldn’t as a digital marketing communications team, we couldn’t do everything that we need to do totally, remotely — especially since there’s so much interaction normally with our physicians and our researchers and our nurses and social workers and how important that is, to be close to those stakeholders because we need to speak for them to the various audiences.

And then obviously technology. That’s the good thing about it. And being in digital marketing, everything we’re doing is in the cloud now. So, we could do it. And we, you know, essentially like many other people, we’d get on Zoom at 8:30 in the morning and we’d get off Zoom at 6 o’clock at night. So we’re still having all those same connections.

We learned, for example, we had a tremendous amount of success with social media, where we took our experts who were experts, for instance, in pediatrics and they were treating more COVID children patients. And so we did a whole series of Facebook Live interviews with experts in different service lines, talking about their service lines connected to COVID. And it turned out, the world could not consume enough of what we put out. They were gobbling up everything, every single thing we put up. We got over 14 million views in a short amount of time with half, about seven million engagement numbers attached to those views. And it was an interesting lesson about finding out what questions the general audience is asking that aren’t being answered, at least not by a trusted brand or trusted voice

Ahava: You and I are backstage at SNL in a year from now. Lorne Michaels sees this interview, and thinks, I’ve got to get these guys in here.

John: This sounds very realistic.

Ahava: And we’re having a drink with one of the cast members. Who would you have a drink with if you could pick anybody?

John: Kate McKinnon.

Ahava: Yeah, me too. Okay, so we’re both with Kate McKinnon and Kate McKinnon says to us, “what’s the number one thing you took away from this experience as a healthcare marketer, that you will never forget and always have as part of your role?”

John: If I’m talking to Kate McKinnon, I would’ve passed out already. And then I’d come to, you’d put smelling salts underneath my nose, and then after I came to, if she asked that question, so she’s asking, wait, what is the question again from Kate? I’m again so bowled over that I’m speaking to Kate McKinnon!

Ahava: Well after she does her skit about going to aliens, to be taken up into the alien’s ship. Those are the best skits. But so she says, “What’s something you took away that you’ll never forget, that you’ll always have is part of your method?”

John: First, that is the best skit she’s ever done, and that even when it’s a recurring skit, it’s so brilliant and that she could make anybody, any of the hosts that she’s doing the skit with crack, I think, and her evident glee in it.

Ahava: She doesn’t crack.

John: She doesn’t.

Ahava: The one with Ryan Gosling is just, you just cry, you know what I mean?

John: So I think the one thing, Kate, that I learned is that the hardest thing that ever happened to us as a team that, before, I never thought we could have gotten through it, we got through it. So when other things like this come, if there are other pandemics, that we will survive it. I’m not saying that’s easy, and that any of this has been easy. It’s been far from it. But we can do it. And so anything in any challenge smaller than that, oh, please. We can definitely do it.

Ahava: John, thank you so much for being here, it’s so great to have you. We really appreciate it.

John: Great being with you. Thanks for having me. And I can’t wait for that backstage …

Ahava: Yeah, I’m gonna send Lorne Michaels an email right now.

John: Please do. I’m picking out my outfit now.

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About Ahava Leibtag

Ahava Leibtag, MA

Ahava R. Leibtag has more than 20 years of experience in writing, messaging and marketing. She is a well-recognized content expert and writes thought leadership about content strategy and content marketing. Ahava is the President and owner of Aha Media Group, a content strategy and content marketing consultancy founded in October 2005. She... More >