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Communications Health System Growth

How One Health System Used Patient Outreach to Cut ED Visits

Annie Bonzer, Altru Health’s director of marketing and public relations, sat down with Patient Engagement HIT  to discuss how she partnered with Virgin Pulse to drive clinic traffic with a multi-channel campaign. See below for the full article. 


When Altru Health, a North Dakota-based integrated health system, opened its Express Clinic walk-in facilities, Annie Bonze knew it would need a strong patient outreach program to get patients in the door.

After all, the new Express Clinic facilities were intended to be used as drop-in clinics where patients could get their medical needs addressed. And up until then, most Altru patients were using the emergency department for that.

“Previous to opening our Express Clinics, our only walk-in access point for patients throughout the day was through our ER and then our Urgent Care, which was actually triaged through the ER,” Bonzer told PatientEngagementHIT in an interview.

“So we knew when we decided to move towards this more walk-in clinic approach, which was new for us and new for our communities, that we’d have a lot of patients who were so used to just coming to the emergency room where they’re essentially walk-in care,” Bonzer said.

Getting patients out of the emergency department and into those walk-in clinics was going to be essential. The ED faces overcrowding in numerous hospitals across the country, and is a notoriously expensive place operationally.

That’s not to mention the fact that patient experience can be a challenge in the ED. Because of that overcrowding, patients often face long wait times and a rushed environment, something organizations don’t want patients having to experience when not necessary.

It was those realities that hammered home the importance of marketing those Express Clinics to patients. If Altru could let patients know about those walk-in clinic options and educate them about the benefits over accessing ED care, the health system could potentially cut down on ED overcrowding.

Using patient outreach and analytics technology from Welltok, Bonzer and team outlined a targeted patient outreach campaign that leveraged both direct mail and email communication. The technology and data-driven approach helped Bonzer deliver on Altru’s overarching mission of connecting patients to the right kind of care that they uniquely need.

“Our team is really focused on educating and connecting our patients with the care they need more so than blanket advertising, so being able to target and use data to reach the right people with the message is really important to us,” she said.

The patient outreach technology utilized EHR data and identified patients who might need to know about the Express Clinics, such as patients who are high-risk or high utilizers of the ED. Altru conducts that query monthly to identify new patients who may have utilized the ED when they could have accessed a lower acuity care site.

From there, Altru is able to reach out to the patient using the direct mail and email campaigns. The direct mailers were more targeted at promoting the basics about the Express Clinics and letting patients know that those sites are an option.

“Messaging does have to be pretty simple,” Bonzer stated. “With our direct mail piece, that’s what we focused on. It’s a really simple piece that speaks to the key benefit of where you can get care right now, and then includes our locations and our hours for our Express Clinics.”

Keeping this information simple and on a piece of cardstock a patient might hang somewhere in her house was strategic for Bonzer. Most patients aren’t expecting to need walk-in care, and usually aren’t making an appointment at an Express Clinic.

It’s important for Altru to meet patient needs by giving them the quick information they might require in a pinch. That way, patients don’t have to try and call the Express Clinic or get information on Google. They already have it on hand, Bonzer said.

When COVID-19 became a significant issue in the US, Bonzer and team revamped these cards, she added. They began to include information about how they were keeping their Express Clinics safe and new COVID-19 registration and waiting room protocols. Altru also added information about their new virtual care offerings that were accelerated by the pandemic.

And on the email side, Bonzer and her team focus more on what she calls “nurturing and educating.” Email campaigns are supposed to outline the benefits an Express Clinic can have and explain why a patient might considering visiting one of those as opposed to an emergency department.

“Email for us is really important as a nurturing tool,” Bonzer noted. “Once a consumer has received the main message on something that you’re trying to convey to them, you can really utilize email as a drip campaign to continue to nurture, include further benefits, target more closely.”

This approach has worked well for Altru, Bonzer remarked. Over a two-year period, the direct mail and email campaigns have seen a 178:1 return on investment. Twenty percent of patients targeted have been receiving care in an Express Clinic after having received an alert.

It’s those key metrics—who did the campaign turn over from an ED visit into an Express Clinic visit—that Bonzer said helps Altru determine whether a campaign was successful.

“We always are going to look at our marketing metrics. We’re going to look at open rates and all the different things that we can learn from the analytics of our digital tools, but having that encounter data is really powerful,” she explained.

The outreach technology helps pull that encounter data for Bonzer and team, and they can parse through that information to determine the campaign’s success.

“We all were able to see a lot of people who we communicated with,” Bonzer said. “How many of them came in and went to one of these clinics where we have express locations? And in addition to that, what were the charges that we’re seeing and what’s the return on investment? What other services have they used? What kind of insurance do they have?”

“So we can really understand our patients that have taken this message and actually chosen to get care either completely because of this or in support of some other messaging or just their desire to seek care that they received,” she added.

This campaign’s success, and the Express Clinics in general, have been a saving grace as of late, Bonzer added. COVID-19 is gripping North Dakota, as the nation faces what is arguably a second or third wave of the pandemic. Having space in the emergency department—and keeping healthy patients out of the ED and away from potential virus spread—has been important.

“Patient outreach is something we’ve been doing for a couple of years, but it really became more and more important as we are experiencing a pretty big surge here in North Dakota over the past couple of months,” Bonzer concluded.

“And as a part of that, we were seeing our ED really fill up. And that happens. It’s not shocking that that happened, but being able to have this tool help to redirect people who either may have come in and recognized that this wasn’t really the right place them but didn’t know where else to go.”

Original article appeared in Patient Engagement HIT – January 2021.