Kid Crusader: 5 Questions With Kelly Kavanaugh, Dayton Children’s Hospital



The SHSMD annual conference (Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development), gives marketers and branders from top hospitals and healthcare systems a chance to network, share learnings, and consider new ways to grow their brands and businesses. On-site at the event, we caught up with Kelly Kavanaugh, Vice President of Marketing and Strategic Planning for Dayton Children’s Hospital in Dayton, Ohio.

Kelly’s presentation at the conference, Turn Your Employee Town Hall From a Snooze to an Engaging Communication Platform, reflects her expertise in engagement tactics and galvanizing employees around the brand.

Her leadership at Dayton Children’s has been instrumental in inciting change for the hospital. Her marriage of strategic thinking and marketing savvy has led to a number of key initiatives, including the development of Destination 2020, Dayton Children’s roadmap for the future, and a recent rebrand for the organization. Prior to this role, she was a vice president at Reynolds and Reynolds, and has more than 30 years of experience in marketing, strategic planning, and public relations.


Pediatric care is often lauded as miraculous work—and with good reason. As a children’s hospital, is it challenging to market both your everyday care as well as your more advanced treatment services?

Dayton Children’s is situated between two leading children’s hospitals which can make it challenging to showcase our advanced services as we co-exist in overlapping media markets. We did a brand study in 2015, and it showed consumers absolutely preferred our hospital for routine and urgent and emergent care, but with more critical care, the preference, while still strong, dropped slightly. So that’s something we are really focused on as we expand and grow our more critical and highly specialized services.

In the last four years, we’ve added 80 subspecialists to our care team. As anyone in pediatrics knows, pediatric subspecialists are in high demand and in short supply. With this growth in specialists, we’ve expanded specialty services, opened access, and grown our capability significantly. There’s not very much a child would have to leave the Dayton market for, and if he or she does need to leave the market, we are the best connector to care.

Since the 2015 study, we’ve been working to strengthen our brand around access, specialization, and technology without losing the attributes that make us truly special. In the spring of 2018 we plan to see if we have seen movement with our employees and with consumers.

Because your hospital is more local, how are you trying to differentiate on patient experience? How would you define some of the experience principles that you’re trying to implement?

One of the outputs of the brand study was the need to determine our brand and brand strategy. As Dayton Children’s Hospital, we are uniquely positioned to care for the region’s children in a way no other hospital can. We are Dayton’s children’s hospital. We want to take a position of being a community brand, not that we’re a community hospital, but we are this community’s children’s hospital. We’re uniquely positioned to serve the children and families of our community because we know them; we are them.

We invest in the community; we’re part of the community. This was the positioning we had to solidify, and it requires building on our strengths of compassionate, friendly, personalized care with the depth of specialization and ease of access required to meet the health needs of the children in our region. It’s not sufficient for us to be the compassionate, caring brand. We must also be highly specialized in the care of children. Relative to patient experience, it means we have to be the best in all aspects and at all times and in all ways. This is no small task, but one we believe is paramount.

You’re speaking at SHSMD about strategies for galvanizing employees. Talk to me a little about your hospital’s employee brand and how you use it to engage. What moves the needle?

Five years ago we brought on a new CEO, and ever since then, the culture has really shifted in a very positive way. I mentioned earlier that we’ve brought on 80 subspecialists, and they’ve come from all over–Stanford, Cincinnati Children’s, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—leading children’s organizations. They’ve come to our hospital because they are physicians that want to have a voice. We’re a smaller hospital, and now they’re at the table; they’re deciding how we’re going to practice and shaping how we deliver care. In fact, our physician leaders are, right now, working on a plan to transform how we deliver care. It’s not somebody sitting in the C-suite passing something down to them; they’re really at the table.

Additionally, we looked at employee engagement in our 2015 survey. Our employee engagement was in the 11th percentile of children’s hospitals. This is good, relative to the rest of the healthcare organizations, but not relative to children’s hospitals where engagement is traditionally much higher than at adult hospitals. If you want to be the best at patient experience, you also have to be the best at engagement. In our most recent survey, we’ve shifted to the 85th percentile. We listened to the data, to the feedback we got; we made the changes we needed to make, and the employees noticed and responded accordingly.

What made the biggest difference? We listened. We gave our employees a voice. We took action on the most important issue they raised–comp and benefits. Compensation had been identified as low scoring item in back-to-back engagement surveys, but it typically is low scoring as no one is ever completely satisfied with comp and benefits. In our case, as we discovered, it was a significant influencer of engagement as the competition for health care workers, especially nursing, was intensifying. This issue also presented itself through our town halls which we revamped to include a new and popular feature called, Rumor Lane. It was through this forum that we gathered more insight into the impact compensation and benefits had on our employee engagement. While we had already launched a market study of compensation, we accelerated it and brought all below market positions to competitive pay in a very short period of time. We also made significant market-leading improvements to non-medical benefits. By giving our employees a voice and then acting on what we heard, we’ve advanced our culture and engagement which in turn will strengthen our brand.

There has been a tremendous amount of consolidation among health systems.  To date, hospitals that have specialized in pediatric care have been somewhat insulated from this dynamic.  Do you expect this to change, and how so?

When our CEO goes to conferences, she’s often asked, how are you able to stay independent? Our strategic roadmap, Destination 2020, is rooted in remaining independent. We believe that to be a children’s hospital for our region, we have to be locally governed. We do not believe we can fulfill our mission to improve the health of children in our region if we are part of a larger health system where pediatrics is only a small part.

Kids already have a limited voice as we know from the healthcare debate going on right now as kids have been shut out of the Medicaid funding discussion—and Medicaid is the number one payer for kids’ healthcare. And so we are determined to remain independent.

We are strong financially. We have made a significant investment in staff, facilities, and technology to meet the needs of the children in our region. And we are growing both inpatient and outpatient in a population flat market. We are seeing great results from our investments and our strategic focus and feel it imperative that we remain steadfast in our independence so we can best meet the health needs of the children of our region.

More than ever, leaders at hospitals and health systems are demanding real ROI on branding and marketing efforts.  What best practices can you share regarding how your organization measures the impact of branding and marketing?

We recently opened a new patient tower which prompted a conversation around our visual identity. We had a 42-year-old logo, typical of a children’s hospital, stick figures of an adult with his arm around a child. Our new identity is reflective of our “things that fly” theme which we used throughout our new tower.

Given that Dayton is the home of the Wright brothers and the birth of human flight, we wanted an identity that linked to our transformed spaces and showcased the innovation and limitless possibilities the Wright brothers inspired. Our new identity is a whirligig, a toy given to the Wright brothers by their father and an inspiration for human flight. For us, it’s a colorful, ribbon-based symbol that illustrates the care we wrap around each child. We also used lowercase lettering for our name, which we feel represents our humbleness.

Since our brand study, we’ve made so many transformational changes that we believed the best way to reflect that was with a new mark for what is a very different Dayton Children’s. We will measure the impact of this new mark along with our new brand positioning in the spring of 2018 with a repeat of the brand study. In healthcare, a strongly positioned brand is foundational to any ROI.

Another area where we measure return is our website. We’re now focused on service-specific marketing. We used to market the hospital generally, but people often don’t choose the hospital but rather a provider or service. We’ll be tracking our campaigns and how well they drive traffic to our service pages and identifying if there is then a lift in new patient visits for those services. Lastly, we’re measuring market share. There aren’t going to be more kids in our market, so it’s important to know and track our growth through this metric, inpatient and outpatient.

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