Beyond the Obvious: Four Areas that Need Attention in COVID-19 Communications

Urgency, uncertainty and anxiety are deepening as the noise and news of the COVID-19 crisis spreads across the globe.

For those outside of healthcare, this global challenge is unfolding through the lens of intense and constant media scrutiny.

For those who provide care, our mission and reputation are being tested – inside and out. It’s a moment to use assertive communications to your advantage or risk harm by staying silent.

As healthcare leaders you have two critical, equally important priorities:

  • Ensuring the provision of quality care is the obvious role and where you are rightly investing so much of your energy.
  • To be an active voice of trust and authority on pressing healthcare matters for your staff and physicians first and, then, for the people they serve on your behalf.

To underinvest in either priority in this moment can put your organization and its reputation at risk.

With viral dissemination of real and fake news, declining trust in large institutions, pressure by organized labor and the complexity of a developing story, now is the moment to be the assuring and consistent voice of credibility to the audiences that matter most to you.

This is easier said than done, particularly when hospitals are scrambling in anticipation of the virus, bracing for at least a 20 percent reduction in caregivers because of it, and weathering breathless media calls. However, to be quiet now is to create a vacuum of information that will be filled by others – including, possibly, some in your own organization — and not necessarily to your advantage.

You know the crisis drill. You’ve set up processes – screening, isolation, telemedicine, call centers and hiring extra staff to enforce those protocols, so that your organization doesn’t become a source of sickness. You’re preparing for absenteeism, ensuring that you will meet regulatory requirements for staffing ratios, union contracts.

You’ve assembled the in-house COVID-19 SWAT team – featuring clinical teams, environmental services, infection control, HR, communications, supply chain, legal and more – to stay updated and to share with your stakeholders what you are doing to protect them. (And, if you haven’t, you should.)

Those are solid tactics. And the golden thread running through that work? Communication.

Let’s look deeper into four less-obvious ideas to consider.

Taking Care of Those Who Provide Care

Always start internally.

Don’t assume that your staff understands the nuances of COVID-19. Also important, don’t assume they know all you are doing to prep for the spread of the virus to protect not only patients, but also your own team members. This is a moment to show your position as an employer who genuinely cares about your employees. It is certainly a time to address any outstanding vulnerabilities that may attract the attention of regulators, organized labor and others who may question your stewardship.

You know your nurses and physicians are your most credible spokespeople both inside and outside of your four walls. Leverage that.

Tactically, this can include:

  • Assembling an in-house COVID-19 SWAT team – featuring clinical teams, environmental services, infection control, HR, communications, supply chain, legal and more – to stay updated and to share with your stakeholders what you are doing to protect patients and your team them.
  • Working to protect your team by offering additional training with infection control processes, implementing sensible telecommuting, ramping up call-center availability, increasing virtual care capabilities and limiting visitation. Help them stay healthy so they can take care of others.
  • Informing your team daily about the steps you have taken to protect patients and the community. Arm staff with talking points, updates, revised protocols. As this issue continues to unfold, keep providing updates and engaging with your team.

Well handled, this challenge can show the best side of an organization, help with physician and nurse retention and banish the need for organized labor to make approaches. The first step is owning the story.

Tell Your Story in the Community

Local healthcare is invaluable. This is your moment to shine. This issue is getting intense media attention and provides an opportunity for your team to highlight the role you are playing in addressing the challenge.

Having started internally, the communications should spread outward.

  • Identify your audiences and the channels where you can best reach them. Yes, you want to reach patients. But also think about elected leaders, community health partners and others.
  • Work to maximize your digital assets, with two-way communication via your website and social media. Consider putting up a dedicated page on your website to serve as a single source of truth for all COVID-19 issues and questions.
  • Partner with your local media outlets for regular updates. Consider establishing a “fight fear with facts” discourse that can be updated regularly. Remember that the messenger is a message. Be sure to select the right messenger, preferably a physician or nurse with a white coat and media training.

Such transparency will not only add clarity but will instill confidence from your team and your community at large. Your team is doing tremendous work – take the time to let your community know.

Be Mindful of the Story on the Other Side

It ain’t over when it’s over. Experts are studying whether COVID-19 will abate in the summer, as a number of other cold and flu viruses do, then re-manifest when the weather turns colder. But that doesn’t mean healthcare leaders will leave crisis-mode. Once patients receive their healthcare bills, they’ll no doubt be gobsmacked by the high price for mandatory quarantines and other healthcare services.

They will be vocal about this. Think of the stories you’ve been reading about surprise billing and hospitals using the legal system to collect from patients. Now is the time to think about the financial implications of this issue.

  • Ask your finance team to think about how patients will be impacted from a cost standpoint, both insured and uninsured patients.
  • Review and revise your financial assistance policies, if you haven’t already done so. Consider if any changes should be made for COVID-19 care.

Bottom line: You may have handled the provision of COVID-19 care superbly at your organization, only to severely injure your reputation on the back end when the collections are due.

Don’t miss the chance to prove to your community that your organization is fulfilling its mission and acting in the best interest of patients.

Special Focus: Specialty Settings

Care doesn’t just happen in the hospitals, urgent care clinics and physician offices. Healthcare providers are also at risk in behavioral health settings, rehabilitation centers and long-term care facilities.

Perhaps none of those providers is more vulnerable than long-term care centers. The cohorts they serve are inherently at greater risk than the general population. And the industry itself is fragmented in nature, with mom and pop operations who may not have the knowledge, resources or ability to provide care at best-practice levels.

  • Staff and caregivers need to be extra vigilant to detect early warning signs, enact measures to deal with individuals who present with symptoms and communicate effectively with family members.
  • Depending on the model employed by the long-term care facility, clinical care providers may not be employed by the facility. Any new procedures or measures need to be properly communicated to ensure an aligned approach to care.
  • Consider a partnership with a local hospital for emergency preparedness and even early testing to minimize the spread to other residents.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate your plan with all your stakeholders. Those include employees, physician partners, patients, visitors and especially families.

Going Forward

Know that we are committed to providing additional insights on this important topic. In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to share our thinking to help healthcare leaders like you navigate this communication challenge and position your organization and team as true leaders committed to making healthcare better.

Meanwhile, to cut through the noise of this topic, we’ve curated a handful of strong articles to illustrate the scope of and how to appropriately act on this crisis.

David Jarrard