Frantic flu season and coronavirus panic? Don’t drop the ball on patient (or employee) experience*

By Aaron Campbell & Charmaine Weis


Some hospitals look like disaster zones during this year’s historically serious flu season.

And now the US is bracing for the potential threat of coronavirus, generating significant fear (and, it seems, somewhat masking the news about the flu).

Behind the scenes and away from the media buzz, many providers are taking drastic measures to handle increased patient loads and prevent the flu virus from spreading within their clinics and hospitals. And they are creating plans to prepare for and respond to a coronavirus outbreak. Visitor restrictions, security checks at entrances, all-caps warning signs, mandates to wear protective masks and even tents or makeshift intake areas are common.

While these precautions are essential, we believe you can still deliver a great experience, even in the midst one of the worst flu seasons in decades. Here are nine ideas you can implement today that will help prevent the flu from spreading, keep employees motivated, mitigate fear and build trust among patients and members of your community. In addition, these communications tips can be adapted if and when your organization faces other frightening and highly communicable diseases such as coronavirus.

(Please note that we’re communications experts, not medical professionals. Nothing in this post should be taken as medical/clinical advice.)

Before patients arrive

  1. Create a “Flu Symptom Checklist” and make it available on your website and share using social media.
  2. Elevate awareness of and leverage your telehealth offerings to reduce the need for in-person visits. Unfortunately, healthcare facilities are breeding grounds for the flu. Recent research indicates that telehealth can be an effective option for treating patients and for lowering the spread of the illness.

Once Patients Arrive

  1. Equip frontline employees to minimize confusion and chaos. Develop and distribute talking points and an FAQ that anticipates common scenarios and exceptions – you don’t want to be known for turning away the grandchild of a dying patient, for example. If you have employees or volunteers serving as gatekeepers at entrances, check in regularly to ensure you have addressed issues they are seeing or are likely to see. Remind them to treat patients and guests with empathy and compassion. Consider having letters from the CEO readily available at the front desk explaining why restrictions are necessary and include flu prevention tips to demonstrate care for guests who may be feeling frustrated by the restrictions.
  2. Post signs that express care – and urgency. Don’t use hand-written or slapdash paper signs to communicate the seriousness of the situation. Invest in higher-quality, well-designed signs that reflect your brand to communicate restrictions and prevention protocol in a friendly way. Don’t be afraid to thank patients and their visitors for their patience as you deal with higher patient volume. It’s a good investment – you can use them for quick crisis responses in the future.
  3. Don’t stop at the entrance. Be sure to place signs and prevention tips in highly visible areas, such as elevators and patient waiting areas. You almost certainly have mask and hand sanitizer stations in key visitor-facing areas, make sure environmental services are prepared for the increased use of those services and are frequently restocking.

Throughout the season

  1. Leverage news media. Proactively pitch stories about the great work your organization is doing to keep the community safe. Provide regular updates on the number of flu cases you’re seeing. Offer interviews with physicians who can describe symptoms and offer prevention tips. Yes, we see those every year, but don’t stop after one story—there’s a strong appetite for helpful news about a public health issue.
  2. Ramp up social media. Create branded graphics highlighting easy-to-share prevention tips. Post videos of physicians and nurses talking about the flu and re-post positive news stories that feature your organization. Communicate preventive measures you are taking, such as visitor restrictions – as well as the reasons behind them.
  3. Over-communicate restrictions. To lessen the flu’s spread, many hospitals have had to restrict – or even ban — children and others from visiting. If you’ve implemented these precautions, use every public-facing communications channel available to explain the “what” and “why” behind the measures you’ve taken. When mishandled, restrictions can appear heavy-handed and create challenges and frustration for visitors. Do everything possible to prevent a patient’s family members or friends from being turned away at the door because they didn’t know about new restrictions.
  4. Engage partners and influencers. Don’t miss the opportunity to engage community partners such as senior centers, schools and nursing homes by providing practical resources that include symptom checklists and prevention tips. Reformat materials you’re already using for employees and distribute them to organizations serving vulnerable populations. Make sure new materials, such as prevention toolkits, include your branding.
  5. Use targeted internal communications tools. Create leader-specific one-pagers or talking points to update employees on what your organization is doing both internally and externally. Prepare talking points and an FAQ for employees and volunteers, including phone operators, information desk attendants, office employees at clinics – anyone who is helping with the effort. All staff and volunteers now need to be part of your internal communications strategy.

At all times (and most importantly)

  1. Support your people. Take every opportunity to express appreciation for the hard work and dedication of your caregivers. Walk the halls often and check in with employees. Distribute regular notes of appreciation from the CEO or other leaders. Consider including an inspirational story about a team or employee going above and beyond to meet the demand. Offer tokens of appreciation, such as a free meal in the cafeteria, donuts at shift changes or a voucher for a coffee. Small gestures go a long way towards making your employees feel like you understand the stress of their work. Employees are the key to a successful flu response – treat them as such.

*This post originally appeared during flu season 2018 as Flu Season is No Excuse for Bad Patient Experience. We’ve made a few updates and brought it back because the lessons are just as relevant and important today as two years ago.

Aaron Campbell