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Poet, Journalist, Strategist, and Innovator: A Conversation with Emily Kagan Trenchard from Northwell Health

James Gardner

James Gardner, head of Market + Business Development for MedTouch, sat down this summer with Emily Kagan Trenchard, Vice President of Digital and Innovation Strategy at New York’s Northwell Health. Their conversation covered her background as a poet, science writer and digital innovator, her team’s wins and challenges from the previous year, her advice for other strategists, and what she sees as the next big digital leaps in healthcare.

emily kagan tenchardHealthcare marketing draws people from all kinds of fascinating backgrounds, but this may be the first time I’ve encountered someone whose previous life involved the slam poetry circuit! But that’s Emily Kagan Trenchard, VP, Digital and Innovation Strategy at Northwell Health in Great Neck, New York.  “I was sort of a mild-mannered microbiology pre-med student by day and a nationally traveling slam poet by night,” she laughs. “I remember standing in the California state infectious disease control labs and having to step out of my office where I was working and take a phone call from HBO’s Def Poetry Jam to find out that I was going to go film with them.” 

It was her then-boyfriend (now husband) who encouraged Emily to find a way to merge her passions for science and writing. “I quite literally typed the phrase ‘science writing’ into a Google search and found MIT’s program in science writing,” she recalls. That fateful search started Emily on a career trajectory that has made her one of the most creative and forward-thinking healthcare strategists I’ve encountered.

As a budding science writer in the early 2000’s, Emily found herself writing for publications that were also scrambling to put together their websites. “I decided to just teach myself how to code and design and manage websites. That's how I got into building the digital ecosystem that housed and produced the content that helped people engage with scientific topics,” she says.

Emily’s invaluable blend of creative thinking and technical prowess has become the driving engine behind Northwell’s highly sophisticated approach to digital technology. I don’t think we talk enough about the importance of creativity in our tech endeavors, but it’s a combination of perspectives that Emily encourages.

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“I think sometimes creative people get turned off by the idea of engaging with the hardcore tech,” she points out. “But there are so many disciplines blossoming now where you need that blend. User experience science is an essential part of the digital world right now, but also it’s perfect blend of creative and the emotional intelligence needed to understand your user translated into both research methodologies as well as a systematic construction of flows and interaction patterns on the web.”

It’s precisely that out-of-the-box thinking that took Emily from MIT to New York’s Cardiovascular Research Foundation then on to Lennox Hill hospital to lead their digital team. By way of a 2010 merger, Emily found herself at North Shore- LIJ, an enormous shift in scale and scope. “Northwell — the rebranded North Shore- LIJ — is the biggest healthcare player in New York and the state’s largest private employer. We’ve got a network of 23 hospitals, 66,000 employees, and around 665 ambulatory practices. Did you know our hospitals deliver one percent of all the babies born in the U.S?,” she exclaims.

" We’re looking to take the journey with our consumers and in our communities throughout the life cycle of everyone we touch…”

“We also have a medical school partnership with Hofstra University and a research institute called the Feinstein Institute,” Emily continues. “We’re looking to take the journey with our consumers and in our communities throughout the life cycle of everyone we touch, including doing that translational research from the lab bench to the bedside.

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We talk a lot in healthcare marketing, and in this column in particular, about the culture of change within organizations, the willingness — or even enthusiasm — for moving forward and embracing new technology, ultimately to better serve our customers. According to Emily, Northwell embodies that culture. “Northwell is a really great place to be inventive at because we really have a strong spirit of innovation, from every nurse and person in environmental services up through leadership,” she explains.

While Emily’s immediate team is much smaller, the extended digital patient experience group that she collaborates with includes about 120 people across 14 different Northwell divisions. “We service every hospital across the health system, every possible digital need they have plus the signage infrastructure across this enormous footprint,” Emily continues. “The company has seen the true value of what a robust digital infrastructure means, and how to care for our communities who are all online. Our digital life is our real life now and Northwell really had the foresight to make the investment into growing infrastructure.”

ramon sotoIn particular, Emily tips her hat to Northwell’s Vice President and Chief Marketing & Communications Officer, Ramon Soto: “We rebranded in 2016. We used to be a health system called North Shore- LIJ and we became Northwell under his leadership. That brand initiative really put innovation front and center. It was his stewardship of the brand and helping the organization understand how powerful it could be to harness the innovation that was already happening. He really helped make necessary change a point of pride, and not something to be terrified of.”

“Every Friday from noon on we research new ideas, new tech, and work on learning new programming languages, and techniques.”

I was intrigued by the way Emily makes exploring innovation an absolute priority, something that’s embodied in her team’s commitment to “R&D Fridays”. “Every Friday from noon on we research new ideas, new tech, and work on learning new programming languages, and techniques,” she says. That’s led to some truly innovative thinking from team members, including the development of Northwell’s first Alexa skill. It enables users to access Amazon’s voice-activated personal assistant technology to get key information such as wait times at local urgent care centers and emergency rooms.

As digital and innovation strategy lead, Emily oversees Northwell’s consumer-facing digital touchpoints, including websites, mobile web applications, digital signage, and infrastructure analytics. And if there’s a through-line for everything Emily does, it’s streamlining for efficiency, consistency and efficacy. This past year, she says, one of Northwell’s biggest digital milestones was using Pattern Lab’s atomic design principles to provide ease and cohesion in creating Northwell’s digital properties.

“We now have digital styles we can deploy for anybody who’s building a site on behalf of Northwell.”

 “We took all the wonderful work we had done on the brand and codified it digitally, so we have an entire pattern lab for all of our properties across Northwell health that is on brand and it’s also 100 percent accessibility compliant,” she explains. “We now have digital styles we can deploy for anybody who’s building a site on behalf of Northwell. We know that it’s going to look beautiful, feel on brand, work seamlessly, and we know that any Northwell site user will be able to find what they need because the patterns and the interactions are standardized across the enterprise.”

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Northwell also focused strongly on improving its overall web infrastructure in 2017. “We re-architected our entire web infrastructure onto Drupal 8,” Emily says, “so we have a central repository of codes and centrally-controlled features. We can deploy it to smaller sites so that a hospital or service line can have their own navigation, can have their own links and their own SEO value and set ourselves up nicely for all of the personalization work we’re going to be doing this year with our CRM. We can still take what is a relatively small team and extend their power through scalable architecture to support the ever-growing needs of the organization.”

“If we do it right, our patients should never notice — it should feel like magic that no matter where they go in Northwell, they're known and their care is coordinated.”

Looking ahead, Emily says launching an improved digital patient experience is a priority for Northwell. “A big push is to hook together all the backend systems to really make a seamless data orchestration system,” she explains. “If we do it right, our patients should never notice — it should feel like magic that no matter where they go in Northwell, they're known and their care is coordinated. That’s really the goal.”

She also stresses the importance of improving internal and external search algorithms in the year ahead: “We can't just be at the mercy of whatever Google decides to service. We have to become sophisticated about how these algorithms operate and how our content is tagged and delivered. It really needs to be a core competency for any organization with a complex network of services to know how to serve that up to users who are increasingly just using the search bar.”

But it all goes back to the culture of change, upon which all of these initiatives depend. To help foster that culture, Emily encourages healthcare strategists and marketers to remember they’re part of the organization’s bigger infrastructure. “A lot of times, we’re not as savvy as we should be about the needs of the business,” she asserts. “We can talk all we want about how many eyeballs we got on our campaigns, but do we understand what that means downstream, not just for the service we're promoting but also for all the other connected services to it? Do we know what that means for lifetime value of the patient? Do we know what that means for loyalty or retention? The smarter you get about all the places in the business that your work impacts, the stronger a case you'll be able to make for digital engagement.”

“When you understand how the business truly works — all the spider webs of connections, — go talk to those teams you impact and make them your allies.”

And that, she says, leads to great in-house resources: “When you understand how the business truly works — all the spider webs of connections, — go talk to those teams you impact and make them your allies. If the impact of digital investment is felt not just from the digital team, it's going to carry a lot more weight. Find the people who are also passionate advocates. Work on initiatives together because it helps leaders see that this is not just a single division that’s clamoring for resources — it’s a real engine for the business.”

One of the best takeaways from our conversation was that Emily’s enthusiasm for her work is absolutely contagious. She jokes that that can sometimes be a liability, as the biggest challenge she faces is keeping up with growing demand for her team’s services: “It’s really that balance between never stifling the enthusiasm, the creativity and the energy behind it, while still carefully planning your integration so that, at the end of the day, you end up with a system that really works together, integrates well and is smartly sustainable.”

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