Aurora Health Care Navigates Email Marketing Amidst HIPAA

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The integrated healthcare system introduced a savvy email marketing strategy through Salesforce, and reports crazy open rates, all within HIPAA compliance

Healthcare is one of the most critical topics in America today. At their best, discussions around the healthcare industry transcend politics and business, but many hospitals and other patient care facilities are businesses nonetheless. As businesses, these institutions do have a marketing mandate, not only to attract new patients, but to provide the best experience possible to existing ones as well — a goal that has only increased in priority with patients’ digital age expectations.

Aurora Health Care — a sprawling integrated healthcare system serving northern Wisconsin (and one of the largest employers in the state with 1,800 physicians and more than 33,000 employees) — noticed the evolution of patient care in the digital age, and took action to leverage marketing technology to secure its position as both a top marketer and a standout healthcare provider. That action was adopting the Salesforce Marketing Cloud, and using its platform to launch a powerfully effective email strategy that has generated open rates as high as 50%. As impressive as that is, it’s the strategy that marketers should take particular note of.

To understand why Aurora’s email success is so remarkable, marketers must understand the context of marketing within the healthcare industry. Marketers in healthcare face two two major challenges. One is specific to email, and is a challenge all marketers face: the inundation of the inbox.

“We sincerely take to heart that we’re competing in [patients’] inboxes with hundreds of emails. We don’t blast emails to everybody,” says Murray Friedman, digital marketing director at Aurora Health Care.

Aurora knew it was competing for attention from some of the best email marketers in the world from a variety of sectors. Big tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google; retailers like Walmart, local malls, and big grocers; plus any number of other businesses active in email. But Aurora also has to compete with other healthcare providers in the inbox.

“Email continues as a primary channel of communication across the healthcare industry. This is especially true within the provider segment, where email serves a critical role for patient engagement,” a Salesforce Marketing Cloud spokesperson said in an email interview. “Many providers, like Aurora Health Care, also leverage email to drive objectives like app downloads and portal adoption.”

This leads into Aurora’s second challenge — or rather, opportunity. This one much more specific to healthcare marketers, and more nuanced: compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).

On the one hand, emails tend to perform quite well for healthcare providers. These communications have extremely high relevance to their audience. They often contain appointment reminders, lab results, and other messages relating to vital patient care. But these are transactional emails, and aren’t typically used for marketing products or services. It’s a good thing too, because under HIPAA there are restrictions on use of confidential patient data for marketing purposes.

Like any other business, Aurora was already sending these transactional emails, but the company saw an opportunity to market products and nurture its base through email. The challenge was doing so without exposing themselves to HIPAA compliance hits.

“We had to be very careful and sensitive to [HIPAA]. We work very closely with our compliance folks” Friedman says. “For example, just because we have your email address, we can’t be sure who will read the email. So, we have to very cautious about what information is contained in the email.”

Aurora was able to navigate to a space where it can send high performing email marketing communications without abusing patient data; a difficult balancing act. Healthcare providers have some of the most valuable data in the world, which makes them especially accountable to the patients who own that data, and who also don’t want brands (or anyone else) to have access to intimate medical details. The pressure to be compliant with HIPAA here can almost make it seem as though data-based marketing is off-limits to healthcare businesses, but that’s not necessarily the case.

“The generalization that you can’t touch any data isn’t accurate. You just have to be very sensitive. It’s the same with the financial services industry,“ Friedman says. “We stay away from that relationship between the patients and the physicians. These are very high level communications,” added Stacie Cotey, CRM/digital marketing manager at Aurora Health Care.

Aurora knew its patients were open to receiving more email communications because of a survey it conducted, where it found that 60% of patients said they were interested in receiving more emails. So, with a special consideration for compliance, and a clear opportunity to leverage email to inform patients about relevant healthcare products and services, Aurora set its sights on Salesforce Marketing Cloud.

“We started using Salesforce in 2016. We already had a separate healthcare CRM platform, and  integrated it with Salesforce Marketing Cloud,” Friedman says. “In its first year of using Salesforce Marketing Cloud, Aurora Health Care has expanded its email marketing efforts to include more than 40 different campaigns and variations,” a Salesforce Marketing Cloud representative said. These campaigns included emails targeted at patients who were due for screenings, patients who had been to a specialist, but didn’t have a primary care physician, and emails promoting the company’s myAurora online portal and mobile app, which was launched in October 2015.

“One of the first [email campaigns] we sent was a way to promote that app. We doubled the amount of people using the app from that campaign,” Cotey says. “Promoting the portal, we’ve seen open rates [as high as] 50%, and click-through-rates up to 60%.”

All told, Aurora’s email open rates are around 37%, up from 26%. Email grew adoption of the myAurora portal to the point that 25% of Aurora patients are using the service.

The push toward digital hasn’t slowed for anyone, and, through email, neither is Aurora’s marketing.

“Now you can do e-visits online and video visits that are available 24/7.  You can go online and see wait times on urgent care. With more and more services like that, it increases the need for marketing communications,” Friedman says. “By putting a focus on the patient experience through Salesforce Marketing Cloud, Aurora Health Care has improved overall patient care, and is building stronger relationships with its patients,” the Salesforce spokesperson said.

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