How Johns Hopkins Medicine became an information powerhouse during the COVID-19 pandemic

Last spring, as news reports detailed growing cases of a pneumonia-like illness around the world, people turned to Google Search to type in "What is coronavirus?"

The top result that popped up was information from Johns Hopkins Medicine, even above public health authorities like the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Today, if you Google "COVID-19 vaccine and safety," Johns Hopkins remains in that top position in basic searches.

Johns Hopkins Medicine, a governing structure for the University’s School of Medicine and the health system, reimaged its website last year to become an information powerhouse for the public at a time when information was key to understanding what was going on with the evolving health crisis.

Like many health organizations, Johns Hopkins faced the challenge of providing timely, accurate COVID-19 information online and stay at pace with public health questions and concerns.

"I have to credit our content strategy team. In early January (2020) they began researching the coronavirus. My senior content person came to me and said 'I think we should write an article on coronavirus' and so we had an article up on the site in late January," Aaron Watkins, senior director of internet strategy at Johns Hopkins Medicine told Fierce Healthcare.

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Watkins and his team are responsible for marketing, social media, search engine positioning and broad digital transformation strategies at the organization.

The teams at Johns Hopkins had to shift quickly to create a content model that was more nimble and could provide access to accurate coronavirus information in a rapidly changing environment. For example, the organization leveraged its medical expertise and content to develop an online COVID-19 self-checker.

"By the beginning of March, it was suddenly all hands on deck across the institution as the world was beginning to understand the impact of this," he said. 

The Johns Hopkins Medicine website saw a flood of traffic in the early days of the pandemic, receiving 1 million page views per day last spring, according to Sitecore, a customer experience management company that works with the organization.

"In March we had to pivot to more of a crisis response approach. We began working with members across all the departments and having daily huddle calls, twice a day, seven days a week, sharing between members of the communications team, engaging directly with our incident command center and focused on clinical operations led by our infectious disease experts," he said.

The organization developed cross-collaboration between operations teams managing capacity in the hospitals with communications teams monitoring information online and social media teams also tracking online posts, Watkins said.

"We wanted to focus on what are we hearing from the public, what are the most important things that we needed to get answers to and align that with what public health experts are saying. We communicated and worked on that content on a daily basis as things were changing so rapidly," he said.

Johns Hopkins grew visits to its online coronavirus content to more than 38 million in seven months, 4 times the expected traffic, according to SiteCore. Web traffic from social channels jumped 370% as the public searched for coronavirus information online.

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As web traffic exploded, Johns Hopkins worked with IT and software vendors to scale up its servers to carry the load.

During this time, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center was developed as a result of interdisciplinary collaboration spanning the entire Johns Hopkins University and Medicine system. That site has been recognized as the leading, authoritative source for global COVID-19 epidemiological data for public health policymakers and major news outlets around the world.

Last year, Time Magazine named the resource center, what it calls "2020's go-to data source," as one of the best inventions of the year.

"The center’s data has been downloaded billions of times, helping governments to decide where to dispatch resources and when to reopen—and individuals to suss out the safety of hosting a socially distant backyard barbecue," Time Magazine reported.

The Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, a real-time pandemic tracker, has become a global reference for the pandemic and one of the most cited resources to track the spread of coronavirus around the world, cited by U.S. federal agencies and major news sources including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. 

A team led by Dr. Lauren Gardner, epidemiologist and co-director of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering, created the dashboard in late January 2020.

In April, as the virus spread rapidly, the dashboard reached over 4 billion hits a day. 

Since March, Johns Hopkins University's COVID sites have had more than 476 million visitors, and have garnered 1 billion page views, CNET reported in March 2021.

"The dashboard has brought international attention and strengthened trust in our brand. At the same time, we were providing content to answer many of the questions that the public had. I think those two things worked effectively hand-in-hand to serve the public and aligns with our mission to provide the world with the best health information possible," Watkins said.

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An evolving web strategy

As the pandemic evolved, Watkins' team worked to create more personalized content about COVID-19 on the website, adding content about COVID-19 and pregnancy, for example, or COVID-19 and heart health. 

The website content has since been updated to include information about the COVID-19 vaccine, articles addressing vaccine hesitancy and specific topics such as how the vaccine may temporarily impact mammograms.

Moving forward, the teams at Johns Hopkins have learned valuable lessons from the past year to inform the organization's ongoing digital transformation strategies.

'It really strengthened the importance of listening to our audiences and understanding what concerns are top of mind for people," he said. "Looking ahead, we're thinking about how that impacts our web strategy. So much of our focus is ultimately about digital transformation and making sure that people have access to care when they need it and how they need it, whether via telehealth or in person."

Johns Hopkins' work during the past year to provide timely, accurate information about an evolving pandemic also highlighted the value of collaboration across the organization.

"This is a diverse, complex and at times siloed organization but our ability to come together and share information and share tools and co-develop together really was so critical to the care we were able to provide as an institution and the services we were able to provide to the general public and across the world," Watkins said.