Arthur W. Page Society

Crisis Innovation: Learnings from Medtronic's Pandemic Response

On March 11, 2020, The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic as the world watched this unknown disease rapidly spread around the globe. From China to Europe to the United States, businesses, schools, restaurants, transportation and life in general began to shut down.

Late February last year, I was in the middle of a career change and in the process of relocating from Cleveland, Ohio to Boulder, Colorado. On my fifth day in my new office, I was informed that every non-essential employee was to work from home until further notice. So, off I went to Cleveland to begin my new job, with a new team, during a pandemic, while working remotely from my kitchen counter like so many others.

There was so much about this disease that was quite unknown. As scientists and doctors were working hard to learn more, patients with symptoms of COVID-19 presented at hospitals with extreme cases of respiratory failure. At the time, there was very limited information on how to best treat the disease, contain it or fully understand what caused this virus that was moving quickly from community to community.

As early as late January, we began to hear that Intensive Care Units (ICUs) in other parts of the world were quickly filling up with very sick patients, many of whom required to be on ventilators to save their lives. The world watched as death rates spiked and the virus spread to every corner of the world.

The company I work for makes high-end, life-saving hospital ventilators which were in high demand at the beginning of the pandemic. In normal times for example, a mid-sized hospital needs about four to six ventilators to care for patients. In any given week, we made roughly 200 ventilators per week at our manufacturing facilities to maintain normal supply to hospitals around the world that use our ventilator products.

Early in the pandemic, the demand for ventilators quickly increased and we needed to be able to grow our production to 1,000 per week. We needed a plan to quickly mobilize our workforce to rapidly increase production, innovate to keep our employees and healthcare workers safe and share our knowledge and invite other able companies to assist in the production of mid-level ventilators to meet the growing need of these life-saving devices.

In addition, our engineers developed a way to remotely control ventilators through a laptop so doctors and other healthcare workers didn’t need to enter the patient room of a highly contagious COVID patient nearly as often as they normally would. We gave that software away to all of those who had our ventilators in their hospitals. In addition, that technology was developed within weeks, not years.

Communications was critical in the success of this urgently developing and unprecedented situation that tested our ability to change, adapt, and move quickly as a company and to play a critical role in helping patients.

Collaboration between communications and our business leaders was key to success. Our leaders – business, supply chain, operations, legal, human resources, engineers, sales, communications and more had to come together to be able to move quickly.

From a communications perspective, those from internal, business, media relations, the crisis team worked hand-in-hand, around the clock to ensure an optimal outcomes and to support the critical business needs in an unprecedented human challenge.

Here are some essential learnings from our experience:

Align business actions with messaging and communication strategy

We created one integrated (and breathing) document that was updated constantly and in line with the changing business needs.

Our messaging was completely aligned with what the company was doing. This made it much easier to communicate and to have our spokespeople stay on message consistently. Our messages were around mobilizing our workforce, ramping up production, innovating to drive safety to patients and employees, and sharing information to get other partners involved.

Build a dedicated team to focus on communications for the pandemic

We had to pull together a cross-functional team of communicators to be completely engaged with our core leadership team to help with customers, employees, patients, healthcare systems, governments, and more. This was truly a 24/7 communication operation. 

Maintain a dedicated team to work on day-to-day business communications

Those directly involved with communications to support the pandemic were important, but it was equally important to dedicate a team to keep the day-to-day work going to support the business not related to the pandemic.

Focus on the mission and do the right thing

As a communications professional, the best part of this experience is to know that our role was to help patients. That never wavered and was central to our decision making. We are mission-driven and put the needs of patients first.

As the pandemic continues, communication continues to play a key role for our organization. As we contemplate a return to office, the new normal and the availability of a vaccine for all are important aspects of how communications continues to be central to this ongoing pandemic.

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