Hospital for Special Surgery takes patient engagement, marketing to a whole new level

How do you find a rock-star physician who has a gentle bedside manner, fantastic surgical skills and great patient outcomes? Most patients rely on word of mouth and the recommendations of family and friends. 

Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York, one of the top ranked hospitals for orthopedics and rheumatology in the country by U.S. News & World Report, has decided to make it easier for potential patients to read first-hand recommendations from other patients who have experienced a similar condition or injury. The online forum, Back in the Game, launched earlier this month and already features more than 400 patient stories that patients can search by condition or treatment, doctor, patient name or location.

In an exclusive interview with FierceHealthcare, John Englehart, vice president and chief marketing officer for HSS, talks about the organization's patient engagement initiative--which snowballed into what he believes is the largest public online forum of orthopedic and rheumatological patient stories that currently exists.

Next to each patient's story is a photo and contact information of the physician who treated the patient with a link to schedule an online appointment, as well as an opportunity to share the patient's story via Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google or email.

"The essence of it, from the hospital standpoint, is to make affinity visible and provide a real service to potential future patients or those considering care so they can hear directly from patients they can relate to," says Englehart, pictured right.

Patient Juli-Anne Sabino of Garden City, New York, is one of hundreds of patients who agreed to share her story. She writes that she sought help from a surgeon for a labrum tear repair, a fairly new surgery, after she fell over a turtle while running in the park one morning and standard treatment offered no relief.  She found Brian T. Kelly, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at HSS, and says the surgery changed her life. What's more, she was back running three months later.

"Although Dr. Kelly treats professional athletes, Olympians and high level college athletes, he treated me like I was the only patient he had," she writes, adding later that the doctors at the hospital are the "Bruce Springsteen of doctors."

Englehart joined the organization late last year and was new to the healthcare field, whch he says provided him with the opportunity to look at the hospital with fresh eyes. "Something that struck me right away is the strength and affinity that HSS patients feel toward the hospital and their caregivers. It's really amazing, because we are so specialized and we attract a disproportionate share of especially challenging cases. The successful outcomes are a powerful experience for our patients," he says.

It's difficult for patients to make decisions regarding elective healthcare with so many options, Englehart says. But there is evidence in the marketplace that, by far, the most important influence of choice of elective pare, particularly musculoskeletal care, is word of mouth. "Quite simply they rely on the opinions of friends and family and independent people that they can relate to," he says.

As a result, HSS created an opportunity for the patients it has served to share their stories--and for patients seeking similar treatments to hear about their experiences. "For a long time, the hospital has been getting letters, photographs and even videos that patients made and sent, delivered in person, as a way to say thank you. It's an important part of their experience to express their story," he says. "We've created a way to make it easier for more patients to share their stories. At the same time, we connected it to the need and appetite for those seeking similar care from hearing from relatable people. These aren't filtered stories. They are really hearing directly from patients." 

The forum is visual and includes photographs of patients and hospital staff. "It's very personal," he says, "and not all roses and sunshine. These are real stories and challenges the patient faced and experiences they had to get back to their lives."

The platform lets patients search patient stories by the name of the caregiver, type of care and hometown of other patients. "For example, if Barbara from Boise is looking to find people who had similar challenges and experiences with an ACL injury, she can find people near to where she lives who have had similar experiences," Englehart says.

In the next generation of the forum, Englehart says patients will be able to search and connect directly with patients willing to serve as resources. "There is a motivation for a lot of patients to share their stories. A lot of them said at one point they'd almost lost hope. They say, 'I have the gift of experience to give hope and get success. If sharing my story helps other people where I was gives them confidence to find their own way back to the game of life, I want to do that,'" he says.

The forum took off faster than HSS expected, Englehart says. "There was one story that was shared 14 times in the first 72 hours that we launched the site. Fourteen people thought it was worthy to share within their social networks. It's a real game-changer in the way we present what we offer to the world. It will help provide service to our patients and hopefully to hose considering the care we offer."

Englehart says he was contacted by one HSS patient shortly after the forum's launch who understood social media and wrote, "This is awesome, you are building the future of healthcare marketing. You could be the first site in history of Web to fully predict user behavior in advance."

The organization is excited about the future the forum holds, Englehart says. "We think it is something that is original, aligns well with our patients and our future patient's desires, and may be important in telling of our healthcare story so [patients] can navigate their options with more confidence."

To learn more:
- check out the online patient forum