Post-COVID-19 communications for long-term post-acute care

It’s been something of a catch-22.

As most other healthcare providers shut down or scaled back services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, post-acute and long-term care facilities stayed open, continuing to serve their patients and residents. And yet, those very patients were among the most at-risk, seen in the tragic news of some long-term care facilities like nursing homes becoming hotspots for the virus. Providers were in the difficult position of adjusting operations in real time in efforts to keep people safe, without the ability to slow down the delivery of care.

Now, instead of having to convince patients to come back – a concern for hospitals and clinics – these providers must show how they’re caring for their existing patients while also demonstrating to decision-makers and referrers (family members, physicians, etc.) that they’re a good place to send new patients.

“There’s been a dramatic drop in census for skilled nursing communities,” said Crista Stark, Chief Strategy & Development Officer at HealthPRO Heritage, a consulting and therapy management firm that specializes in long-term and post-acute care. “Providers are balancing the challenges posed by COVID-19 with the reality of a diminished referral stream.”

Recently, Molly Cate and Aaron Campbell, CPXP from Jarrard Inc. joined Stark and Michele Saunders of HealthPRO Heritage to discuss this challenge and explore ways long-term care providers can inspire trust in a post-COVID-19 world. Cate is a founding partner of the firm and its chief innovation officer. Campbell, an associate vice president, is also a Certified Patient Experience Professional (CPXP).

Read on, or view the full, 25-minute conversation here.

Adjust the thinking

Post-acute and long-term care providers must now communicate in a volatile, mixed-message environment. People are hearing lots of different – often conflicting – information from many different sources. It’s incredibly difficult to sort through the noise and make decisions, especially because the environment is so emotionally charged.

Cate said, “There’s often a desire among leadership teams to want to communicate only when they have final information and can convince people.” Instead, leaders need to get comfortable with presenting actionable, accurate information quickly and firmly to prevent an information vacuum from forming and allowing other messages to fill it.

Even when things are not 100 percent clear, leaders can instill trust in the organization’s ability to move forward. Campbell suggested honest but confident messages like, “There are some things we may not know today, but we can talk about the tangible things we’re doing. We’ve got years of experience, so we’re doing the right things in this moment.”

“Savvy operators who are relying on CMS and guidance from the CDC and medical community to inform their operational strategy and protocols – such as infection control –  are wisely reinforcing this commitment to patient and staff safely via proactive, consistent communication,” noted Stark.

Elevate communication

Practically, making the adjustment to communicating in this new environment means that communications must be considered as important as operations, finance, HR, etc. Making operational changes to keep residents safe shouldn’t be happening behind the scenes. People need to know what’s going on. Families need to know how their loved ones are being cared for, prospective residents need to feel comfortable moving in, physicians need to know they’re sending patients to a safe place for care.

To that end, Cate said, providers must take the time to craft the right messages for the right audiences. “For example, what are the relevant concerns for each audience? Who do those audiences trust? Clinicians and referral sources are going to trust other clinicians a lot more than they are administrators or a facility director.”

Focus on employees

A critical, yet easy-to-miss audience is employees. Campbell noted that even before COVID-19, research had shown engaged employees positively affect clinical outcomes.

“As we think about this moment in time, we know our employees are living through this with us,” he said. “Cliché as it may seem, the whole message that, ‘We’re in this together’ is so important. Because employees are essential to calming the fear of the people at the facilities today.”

Furthermore, employees tend to develop strong connections with family members due to the long-term nature of the care provided. Campbell said, “Unlike a hospital or health system, employees often care for people for years. Leaders need to recognize that they have a relationship with patients, residents and families, and they can be incredibly powerful messengers.”

Practically, that means:

  • Letting them know that their health and safety is extremely important.
  • Listening to their fears and concerns.
  • Making them active participants in helping solve the problems that lie ahead.
  • Providing clear channels of communication up through the organizational structure.

Talk about what AND How

Regardless of whether an organization is presenting to an external or an internal audience, the specifics matter.

“Long-term care providers should be communicating not only what decisions and operational changes the organization is making, but also how they’re making those decisions,” Cate said. For example, providers will want to explain how they’re obtaining data, how leadership is processing that information and how it’s translated into action for each facility.

Campbell noted that sometimes emphasizing the mundane can be powerful. Nursing homes, for example, have traditionally focused on talking about the ways they provide warm, quality care and community, not about the drier details of how they’re containing infectious disease and creating a safe environment. “I think in this moment, those are more important than ever, and they may be one of the best selling points,” he added.

Speak early and often

Communication is another aspect that shifting for post-acute providers. There is a tremendous need to communicate more frequently and through more channels. Cate said that many providers in the post-acute space will send an occasional email or host an occasional townhall meeting. “These are not the times for that,” she said. “People want to hear from you often, and they’re going to look at different channels.”

Information should be created and updated regularly and provided in multiple formats to ensure as many people as possible across the organization can access it. Leadership must be well-versed in the information being shared, so the message is consistent across the organization. “Give the leadership team talking points and an FAQ, and give them a day to absorb the information so when it’s released they can help spread the word,” Cate said.

“This remarkable and difficult situation presents an opportunity for skilled nursing and senior living operators to invite the public to better understand the post-acute care system,” said Stark. “With the world watching how long-term care is managing the challenges of this pandemic, operators should be proactive in demonstrating their unique expertise in delivering  high quality care for older adults.”

David Shifrin