Digital Health Communications & Engagement Programs: Dining on Elephants

How do you eat an elephant? The answer, as we all know is one bite at a time.

Last week, I attended the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) - National Capital Area (NCA) chapter meeting featured a panel of government experts describing the “elephants” of digital health strategies, communications, and engagements. The panelists included Adam Dole, John Hale, Ann Aikin, and Lakshmi Grama.

As a public sector marketer, I was intrigued because I face similar digital engagement and trust elephants of my own. It was clear from the beginning that these esteemed panelists were among some of the best, most thoughtful “chefs” of today. Here are some of my elephantine takeaways.

Elephant #1: Patients Are Partners

“Partnerships require engagement!” This was a theme all the panelists talked about as being at the center of their respective digital healthcare strategies and successes. Adam, Presidential Innovation Fellow of the White House and the Heath & Human Services, Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (HHS/ONC), talked about their goals of enabling patients as equal partners with doctors, nurses and healthcare workers. “Electronic healthcare records enable patients to become active partners in their healthcare decisions,” said Dole.

“For vets, it’s getting the right mix of channels for the vast spectrum of needs and situations,” said John, Chief Communications Officer, Veterans Health Administration. His ultimate measure of engagement is realizing improvements in our healthcare standards.

Panelists said that understanding stakeholders’ needs is foremost. Customer-centricity is a universal foundation of engagement, as mentioned by John Russell, former vice president at Harley Davidson, “The more you engage with customers the clearer things become and the easier it is to determine what you should be doing.”

Elephant #2: Being Relevant:  Getting Kids Not to Smoke

“Being relevant online means telling a story that gets kids not to smoke,” said Ann, Digital Media Director, Center for Tobacco Products, Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Her message was that creating a conversation with young people now, gives the FDA the means to align and influence their healthcare conversations throughout their lifetime. And would help to identify who is at risk.

Lakshmi, Senior Digital Content Strategist at the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Office of Communications and Education, added that we have to learn to be an active listener and participant in the conversation versus just a broadcast of authority. For me, it was clear that these digital programs are changing conversations and influencing our behavior. This will innovate the healthcare system in the U.S., not just for our generation but for generations to come.

Elephant #3: Unlocking Data

“We have a dual purpose of making information available to the public as well as to the research community. Communications [are] critical to support the mission,” explained Lakshmi. “We are always innovating in the digital world, like marrying clinical trial[s] and healthcare medical records to present treatment and trial options.”

“The main issues around data are competing interests and silos. A lot of providers treat patient information as proprietary,” explained Adam. “Payment reform is changing the conversations. Users should have control over their data and there should be transparency about what is being shared.”

Panelists referred to the Blue Button, Veteran Affairs was the first to display it on their site in 2010. Vets simply click on the icon to securely access their electronic health record so they can download, print, or store their information. Its popularity has grown and has become a symbol for consumer healthcare engagement.  I have not seen the Blue Button, but I believe it will be as iconic for healthcare as Smokey the Bear is to preventing forest fires.

Elephant #4: Trust

The biggest elephant of all is trust. Our constitution puts boundaries on government, and government gives us plenty of reasons not to trust it. On top of that are the (seemingly) everyday cybersecurity attacks facing the healthcare industry. We need both checks and balances in government, transparency, and a strong cyber-resilient stance to enable trust.

I believe John summed it best, “the indication of engagement is involvement. It's about transacting a relationship and trust with those we serve.”


For marketers, how to engage audiences, give them useful information and build trust are elephants we face. As for digital programs in support of healthcare IT, it’s no different. But the stakes are higher. The risk of becoming more active partners in our healthcare decisions, through digital engagement, is very concerning. But the rewards of driving new healthcare improvements and services and elevating our healthcare standards, is a reward worth the risk. It won’t be smooth sailing though. Like elephants, there will be a lack of grace and clumsiness, but there is only one way ahead… bite at a time.