5 Questions with Ascension CMO Nick Ragone

Each year, hundreds of health system and hospital professionals gather for the annual Society for Healthcare Strategy & Market Development (SHSMD) conference to share brand and business challenges and inspire each other for the future of care. This year’s event takes place in Chicago from September 11-14. We had a chance to catch up with some key influencers at the program this year.

First up: Nick Ragone, the Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for Ascension. Ascension is the largest non-profit health system in the US and the world’s largest Catholic health system. With a mission to “deliver compassionate, personalized care to all, with special attention to persons living in poverty,” its 2,500 sites of care are dedicated to both healing bodies and elevating spirits. Nick focuses much of his attention on developing and growing the Ascension brand and also its corporate citizenship platform, a key component of expressing the Ascension values. Before joining Ascension in 2014, Nick worked as a Partner and Director of Ketchum Public Relations in Washington, DC.

Nick, Ascension Health CEO Robert Henkel recently stated that he believes being faith-based will give Ascension a competitive advantage in the future, but some consumers are uncomfortable going to a faith-based health system. How do you use your brand to create and communicate a sense of balance that can appeal to a broad range of patients and their families?

Our Mission is at the heart of all we do. And our Mission is to serve everyone, with special attention to persons in poverty and those most vulnerable. That’s a Mission that’s hard to disagree with! I think people come to know Ascension in their community as a provider of high-quality, personalized care – and that what sets us apart is our commitment to our communities – to serve where and how we are needed. It’s a very powerful message that resonates in our communities, and a legacy of service about which we are very proud.

Tell us a bit more about your community impact commitment, like your community benefit programs such as Medical Mission at Home. As a large system, how do you ensure consistency of service across such a diverse range of communities and make sure the right needs are being met?

Through the Ascension Medical Mission at Home, a common cause across our markets, Ascension offers free community health events that provide families with low income or without insurance access to medical care. To date, thousands of individuals have received free screenings, medical services, dental care, prescriptions, and even spiritual care. It’s something that really serves our communities well and energizes our caregivers. Even those of our associates – our employees – who aren’t direct caregivers get involved and provide care, whether that be washing the feet of people who are homeless or helping individuals sign up for health insurance and receive what we call a “medical home.” It’s truly a wonderful initiative.

Your mission includes service not only of the community at large but particularly of those struggling with poverty. Sometimes less-privileged communities benefit from family planning health services. Are services such as these in contradiction with Ascension’s values? How (or do) you balance health needs with doctrine?

We focus on the myriad of services we offer to our communities – not on those very limited number of things that happen to be inconsistent with our values as a Catholic, faith-based institution. Each year we provide to our communities nearly $2 billion dollars — $2 billion dollars! — worth of care and services for people living in poverty and those most vulnerable. That contribution, I think, sometimes gets lost in the conversation. I think most people recognize the tremendous value we offer in helping improve the health of both individuals and communities at the local level – and our passionate commitment to this work.

The Ascension website indicates a strong internal or employee brand. How do you galvanize employees around the Ascension brand? What services, communications, or experiences do you offer to generate enthusiasm, ensure the highest standards of care, and retain healthcare providers and service staff?

We have a very strong internal brand. Our 160,000 associates absolutely live our Mission every day in providing extraordinary care to those most in need. One program that our associates have found particularly inspiring is our participation in the Veteran Administration’s Veteran’s Choice program. Through this partnership with the VA, we’re now able to provide care to those veterans who live either 40 miles from a VA facility or have been on a waiting list for over 30 days. In less than six months we’ve provided care to over 3,000 veterans who otherwise may not have received the timely care they so desperately need. When we first announced our participation in the Veteran’s Choice program, my email box lit up with emails from our associates around the country who were so proud of what Ascension was doing for our nation’s veterans.

Considering Ascension’s current size, what are the goals for growth in the future? Do you envision expanding globally? Or deepening your reach and impact in the communities you already serve?

Our plan is to continue making a difference in the communities we serve, in particular by creating what we call clinically integrated systems of care – to enable doctors and other caregivers to collaborate outside the walls of their hospitals and clinics, to work together with their colleagues across the country, sharing resources and best practices to ensure a consistent level of care and experience no matter where the people we serve receive it. That could include everything from primary and second care to home health and senior living. We also announced recently the creation of Ascension Holdings International, a new unit that will extend our services and mission globally by meeting unmet needs in other countries. We’re excited about helping other countries provide healthcare to those most in need.

This interview originally appeared on brandchannel.


Senior Marketing Manager, InterbrandHealth