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Listening, Learning & Leading: A Conversation with Don Stanziano, CMCO at Geisinger Health

James Gardner

don stanzianoJames Gardner, head of Market + Business Development for MedTouch, recently spoke with Don Stanziano, Chief Marketing & Communications Officer at Pennsylvania’s famed Geisinger Health. Their far-ranging conversation covered many topics: Don’s move from journalism to healthcare, his thoughts about data and the evolution of marketing, his personal strategy for having an impact, and his perspective on Geisinger’s integrated payor-provider model.

When you talk to Don Stanziano about healthcare marketing and begin to get a sense of his knowledge of and passion for the industry, it’s hard to believe he wasn’t born into it. But Don had a previous life as a journalist, spending a decade as a reporter and editor before switching gears—a journey he began when a contact suggested he apply for a public relations opening at a healthcare organization. That position didn’t turn out to be quite the right fit, but the opportunity did open Don’s eyes to new possibilities, especially with the journalism landscape changing quickly and profoundly.

Once in the door, Don then dove deep into the world of healthcare marketing, notably with 16 years San Diego’s Scripps Health where he ultimately became Vice President of Marketing and Communications. Just over a year ago, he joined Geisinger Health in Pennsylvania as Chief Marketing & Communications Officer.

geisinger logo

Headquartered in Danville, Geisinger is an integrated care and coverage healthcare organization that provides both the financing and delivery of care. Geisinger services more than 1.5 million patients in 45 counties in central, south-central and northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. “There is impressive research happening here, and it is focused on improving access and delivery of care,” Don explains. “We’re able to bring sophisticated care to a market that is largely rural. We're rooted in the communities we serve, and we reflect those values. We're a brand with a great story to tell.”

pennsylvania map small

You can hear the journalist in Don when you talk with him. He has that ability to look at the big picture, ask the why and the how, and leverage that at the most granular level of successful healthcare marketing operations:

“At Scripps, I had great opportunities for professional growth because my move into senior leadership was at the same time as marketing was undergoing dramatic digital transformation. So, I started digging into digital while also asking a lot of questions about marketing strategy and that old reporter in me came out and said, ‘Why are we doing this the way we're doing it? And how do you know what we're doing is working?’ For me, PR was instinctual. It came naturally. But with marketing, I wanted to understand why and how and what was driving decision-making.”

"For me, PR was instinctual. It came naturally. But with marketing, I wanted to understand why and how and what was driving decision-making.”

That need to understand led Don to where we all now find ourselves: data. “That brought me down the path of bringing on a CRM and shifting staff responsibilities and budgets more into digital channels,” he says. “It turns out I’m actually kind of a data geek at heart and I never really knew it. It’s just fascinating to me, the cause and effect that marketing can demonstrate when it’s done well, and with the tools, we have available to us now, we can actually be accountable for driving business results.”

“It turns out I’m actually kind of a data geek at heart. It's just fascinating to me, the cause and effect that marketing can demonstrate when it's done well, and with the tools we have available to us now, we can actually be accountable for driving the business.”

Innovation truly is what I think of when I think of Geisinger, including its MyCode Community Health Initiative biobank; its Fresh Food Farmacy, helping participants manage their medical conditions through food-related behavior and lifestyle changes; and Geisinger at Home, which brings personalized at-home healthcare to eligible members.

food farmacy

“Because of our care and coverage model, our financial incentives and motivations may be a little different than other integrated delivery systems that don’t have a strong insurance business unit. We’re motivated not just by our values to take care of people inside the walls of the hospital, but also to ensure that they’re healthy all the time,” Don says.

“When you talk about a program like Geisinger at Home or the Fresh Food Farmacy, it’s not only the right thing to do for the patients and to meet the needs of the communities we serve, it’s also the right thing to do for the business. We’re decreasing utilization by improving the health of the patient, which reduces costs, not just for us, but also for everyone who pays into the healthcare system.”

We could — and probably should — spend a day taking a deep dive into Geisinger’s programs, which are spurring a lot of interest from other healthcare systems eager to follow suit. But for now, I’m focused on finding out what Don considers his biggest successes of 2018—which also happens to be the length of his tenure at Geisinger so far.

“It was a big year,” Don acknowledges. “We did a complete restructuring of the function. We continue to move toward a consolidation of marketing and communications across the entire enterprise, so it’s a much more centralized model than it was a few years ago.”

He adds: “We’re continuing to look for efficiencies and alignment throughout, to bring the department together and upping the digital tech, the marketing tech stack. We’re bringing CRM into our marketing program, and focusing on marketing automation, and more sophisticated social media management tools. That goes along with shifting more of our focus both in time and budget away from traditional and towards digital marketing.”

crm geisinger

Growth marketing isn’t lost in the shuffle. Don says: “We’re still doing it where we have capacity for growth. As we continue to extend our geographic footprint into new communities, we have opportunities to reach new customers. And, we’re doing a fairly deep brand evaluation, soup to nuts, from platform and messaging to brand architecture, naming conventions—well beyond just expression of the brand or beyond a creative campaign.”

It’s a good reminder when Don notes that, in our job as healthcare marketers, listening is even more important than talking. That “listening,” he says, now comes in the form of data and research unprecedented in our industry. “We have a wealth of information available to us that tells us what the customer wants, that informs customer behavior. And we can be a tremendous resource to operational and clinical colleagues by bringing that information forward and using it to drive decision-making.”

“We have a wealth of information available to us that tells us what the customer wants, that informs customer behavior. And we can be a tremendous resource to operational and clinical colleagues by bringing that information forward and using it to drive decision-making”

Don is cut from the same cloth as Piedmont Health’s Matt Gove and a handful of other leaders who understand that the patient experience is a long journey and that there are so many touch points where marketers can improve the delivery of care — everything from setting up appointments to the billing process. They’re all areas that are, or should be, influenceable by the marketing team. “We need to look at the engagement we’re having with our customers at every touch point, from phones to digital to billing to all the outpatient and ambulatory sites,” he says.

don healthcare marketing

As with many things, I strongly agree with Don here. Modern healthcare marketing must go beyond advertising and embrace the patient’s larger journey. Nobody holistically knows patients, their wants and expectations, and their post-encounter feedback better than healthcare marketers. Respecting every patient’s clinical experience, the case for marketing’s engagement with everything from scheduling to billing feels very solid.

geisinger building small

Sometimes when I talk to healthcare marketers, I detect a little frustration about their role being under-estimated or misunderstood by their organization’s leadership. I asked Don what it is about his approach that has allowed his level of impact and change.

“It’s not a linear path. It’s a series of two steps forward, one step back,” Don says. “The truth is it’s no different than marketing best practices and principles. You need to meet your stakeholders where they are. They’re not expected to be experts in marketing and communications, although many of them have strong opinions.”

At this stage in his career, Don thinks his job is to be a thought leader, as well as an “educator and evangelist for the function.” He explains: “I have to bring ideas forward and then I have to sell those ideas. And that means not giving up the firsttime you get pushed back. It took me two years to sell CRM at Scripps, and there were many points along that journey where significant roadblocks were put in front of me. Roadblocks I did not know were ahead of me.”

“I have to bring ideas forward, and then I have to sell those ideas. And that means not giving up the first time you get pushed back.”

That’s where we need both perseverance and patience, not to mention a holistic understanding of healthcare marketing. “You have to understand the business,” he says. “If we consign ourselves to just being promoters, then that’s how we’ll be seen. That’s who we’ll be. You need to be interested in the numbers. You have to understand the customer’s journey.”

More specifically, when it comes to making change within an organization, Don defaults to his favorite approach: data. “The best way to make an argument is to use data to support your position. When we say to somebody who’s asking for a billboard that they'd be better served with a digital strategy, we need to show some data to back that up. In my experience, most clinicians are data-driven people. They’re scientists at heart and data does persuade them.”

Not surprisingly, Don has a clear view of three things he wants to focus on for the rest of 2019.

  1. Implementing a new brand, a new brand creative strategy, and brand expression. "Basically, a new creative campaign, both internally and in the community. Great brands are built from the inside out. We have to make sure that we can deliver on the promises we make to the community.”
  2. Operationalizing CRM. “We’ve stood up more than 50 digital campaigns to date, and I see that continuing to expand. Now we have to take those campaigns and make sure they’re fully loaded into the CRM, filling in the gaps with the new tools we have available to us.”
  3. Better data analytics and reporting. “This is a big piece for me, and we’re just getting there. I need to start sharing data more now that we’re getting things out in the market and have tools to help us track and measure.

Don, like many of us, is champing at the bit to incorporate truly useful technology in his work. At the same time, he cautions against getting too distracted by, as he puts it, “shiny things” without making sure they have a tangible and potentially profound impact on our customers’ experience - for example, AI.

“I think there's a lot of promise to use AI to help personalize the digital customer journey,” Don notes. “So, how do we take advantage of these tools to apply technology to our marketing tech stack so that we can give people that truly personalized guided experience? I think healthcare is a bit of a laggard on technology and a laggard in marketing. You put those two things together, and we’re really playing catch up. One of the reasons for that is we’re incredibly complicated, eclectic, incredibly regulated, and we deal with an immense amount of highly personalized, personal, sensitive information that is hard to digitize without a lot of guard rails. But I still think there's an opportunity to personalize the digital journey through AI."

Something tells me that when the time is right for fully integrating AI into our healthcare marketing initiatives, as with other innovations, we’ll be looking to Don Stanziano to help guide the way.

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