Tips for Healthcare Communicators During COVID-19

by Jackson Murphy, Vice President

In a matter of weeks, healthcare organizations across the country have rapidly transformed how they operate to address the extraordinary clinical and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The enormous need for respiratory, emergency, and intensive care is prompting hospitals to expand their capacities. Providers nimbly shifted routine care to telemedicine (via phone and video) and found creative solutions such as drive-through centers to safely test for COVID-19. Additionally, necessary social distancing and stay-at-home measures create economic pressure on healthcare organizations as volume from patient visits and elective surgeries dramatically falls.

Healthcare leaders face difficult decisions as they grapple with the ramifications of coronavirus while working to save lives and protect their communities. These realities underscore the importance of how healthcare organizations communicate to their patients, the public, and their staff.

As Issues Management Group helps clients around the region respond to COVID-19, we are learning new things, and reaffirming tried and true practices that healthcare communicators should keep in mind:

Transparency builds credibility

Earning and maintaining the trust of patients, staff, the media, and the public is essential at any time – but particularly important during a crisis of this magnitude. Knowing your audiences and being transparent with those who rely on you for information builds that credibility, especially when there are important messages you want to convey. Proactively communicating with your key audiences allows you to tell your story on your terms, and avoids someone else shaping the narrative for you.

In one very public example, two Bronx hospitals allowed the New York Times into their facilities for a day to show the toll that COVID-19 takes on families, communities, and the providers working around the clock to treat and protect their patients. The key message coming out of the story is something clinicians wanted the public to hear – “if people saw this, they would stay home.”

Listen carefully; think about the questions you’ll get

When preparing to make an announcement or deliver an update, communicators should automatically think about their audiences and what questions might come up. Listening to your stakeholders, understanding their concerns, and paying attention to the news are the best ways to anticipate questions and can help you to provide better answers. Creating a good FAQ document is an effective approach for organizing your thoughts and helping to ensure everyone has accurate information in response to their questions. Keep listening for feedback and continue to update your messaging based on new information as well as what you are hearing from people.

Communicate with empathy and remember to thank your staff  

This may sound like a no-brainer, but it is a guiding principle that all healthcare communicators must remember. Providers, workers, and frontline staff are putting themselves in harm’s way to care for people, and they should be recognized in all types of communications – from internal messages, to social media posts, to materials prepared for media. Hearing, understanding, and acting on their concerns helps drive more empathetic communication. This is especially crucial for delivering difficult news.

Finally, the reverberations of this pandemic are like nothing we’ve ever seen before. It is okay, and sometimes necessary, to remind people of that — but that must be communicated in an authentic and compassionate way to show why organizations are making difficult decisions and taking bold actions.

The astounding amount of coordination, sacrifice, and collaboration required to respond to this pandemic deserves our utmost gratitude for people across the healthcare system. In increasingly challenging and uncertain times, effective, empathetic, and credible communication is a must for all comms professionals but especially those in the healthcare space.

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