Healthcare marketers are adept at pivoting suddenly to address the latest public relations crisis such as natural disasters, mass shootings, questionable care or behavior by hospital staff or, as is the case now, the spreading coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infection rate.
The general public and your employees are bombarded with a variety of messages concerning the spread, morbidity and economic effects of the COVID-19 outbreak. Therefore, credible information, disseminated according to a carefully planned crisis communication strategy is a critical responsibility of every hospital’s marketing and public relations department. While the hospital’s clinical staff is responsible for a crisis plan that prepares the organization for increased utilization, marketers must be engaged at the highest level to best represent the needs of all stakeholders including the community, patients, visitors, healthcare workers, administrators and board members.
The crisis communications plan must demonstrate that the hospital fully understands the ramifications of the COVID-19 epidemic and its impact upon the community, as well as the steps the hospital is taking to effectively manage the situation. All appropriate communication channels must be utilized to reach the broadest of audiences.
COVID-19 crisis communications must:
1) Emphasize prevention by raising awareness of public health respiratory infection-prevention strategies such as hand washing, sneeze techniques, use of masks, avoiding contact with those exhibiting flu-like symptoms, etc. These can be found on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 Prevention and Treatment page. Suggestions for avoiding exposure to the virus are those one would take to avoid any common viral illness, including the flu.
2) Promote verified information to dispel misinformation about the origin, spread, or impact of the virus. At this time, many continue to discount the ramifications of the growing epidemic and question the origins of the disease. Reference widely known and trusted sources such as the CDC, the American Hospital Association, the International City/County Management Association and the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services. The CDC offers a comprehensive FAQ page that covers an extensive array of COVID-19-related topics. Use these prepared responses liberally in your communications. Remind the public that the immediate health risk to the general public from COVID-19 is considered low, but now is the time to practice preventive measures.
3) Communicate about COVID-19 with your patients. Provide updates about changes to your policies regarding appointments, providing non-urgent patient care by telephone, and limitations on visitors. Create handouts for staff welcoming patients and visitors at registration, in the emergency department and on nursing units. Handouts regarding how the disease may be spread and prevention techniques are critically important tools.
4) Promote strategies to prevent patients who can be cared for at home from coming to your facility, limiting exposure to themselves or others. Remind patients to call their healthcare provider first if they develop a cough, fever of difficulty breathing. Create responsive or pro-active telephone messaging regarding when to seek medical care at your facility, when to seek emergency care, and where to go for information about caring for a person with COVID-19 at home. Consider leveraging telemedicine technologies and self-assessment tools in your communications.
5) Develop and disseminate instructive materials in association with clinical staff that address disease prevention in settings where stakeholders and community members congregate. This includes homes, K-12 schools and childcare programs, places of employment, places of worship and at community events. As many hospitals provide on-site day care, offer exercise classes and other educational programs, host community events, and are places of employment for many, these materials are essential components of the internal communications strategy.
6) Communicate about COVID-19 crisis planning with your employees. Share information about what is currently known about COVID-19, the potential for a surge of patients to the emergency department, and your facility’s preparedness plans. Make resources available from the CDC are known and easily accessible to employees via the intranet. The Information for Healthcare Professionals page may be most helpful.
7) Use internal communication tools to encourage sick employees to stay home, even if symptoms are mild. Personnel who develop respiratory symptoms (e.g., fever, cough, shortness of breath) should be instructed not to report to work. Remind employees of sick leave policies or changes made to those policies in this situation. Provide information on work-at-home best practices and policies.
Healthcare marketers and public relations professionals must play a pro-active role in communicating best practices for controlling the possible pandemic spread of COVID-19. As experts in reaching audiences of all kinds, your communication abilities are in high demand in the community, in your place of employment, and in your home. Make sure you have a prominent seat at the table as the Crisis Management team jumps into action.
James Shulkin has been a member of WHPRMS since 1999. He is the principal at Windflower Consulting