Tips for Health Care Providers on Communicating During COVID-19


Most, if not all, communications during COVID-19 is fraught with challenges. From communicating to employees about business changes or potential pay cuts, furloughs or even layoffs, to determining the best approach to notifying people of exposure to the virus.

While crisis management is rarely easy, health care providers must communicate especially difficult messages to patients and doctors (see update 2, March 26). In particularly hard-hit areas like New York City, some private hospitals told pregnant patients they would have to labor alone. Gov. Andrew Cuomo later issued an executive order that would allow women to have a partner with them. Other reports have come out suggesting hospitals are considering universal do-not resuscitate orders. Doctors and nurses are taking to social media or publishing essays to highlight the dire situation.

Constant Change and Reactive Messaging

“When things are changing by the hour or minute, it's important to provide information in an accurate way as it becomes available,” says Katie Krawczyk, CEO/partner at 19 Ideas. “Hospitals and other health care providers must utilize all their platforms to ensure that critical information is universally accessible.” Health care is conveying messages using social media, texting, dedicated landing pages and FAQs sheets, as well as signage for brick-and-mortar locations.

Still, with things happening so fast, it's difficult to avoid confusion. For example, public confusion has reigned over masks. After initially urging Americans not to wear masks, the CDC on Friday (April 3) recommended the use of cloth coverings for all (see update, April 3-4). Healthcare providers need to ensure they provide relevant, consistent messaging on this issue that aligns with CDC guidance.

Another issue causing confusion is the hype around hydroxychloroquine. The president has said often during briefings that the malaria and lupus drug could help defeat the virus. During Sunday's (April 5) briefing, he said, "I'm not a doctor," but added, there's no harm in trying it, it won't kill anybody. Not all doctors agree with that view.

From a PR viewpoint, spokespeople and executives are urged to limit communication to their topics of expertise. Critics note since the president is not a doctor, he should refrain from seeming to recommend medicine. Regardless, in this uncertain atmosphere, healthcare providers must ensure they explain clearly the drug's promise and risk to patients and their families.

Admit Changes Will Occur

With so many issues in play, some providers have been reactive, rather than proactive in their communication, says Maggie Hooper, Mower Agency's management supervisor and healthcare specialty lead. The importance of frequent, outbound communication cannot be overstated, she say.

“Acknowledging that things can, and will, change is really important,” Hooper adds. In addition, alert your constituency that you will be in touch if new information comes to light or policies change.

One provider taking this message to heart is Dr. Craig Smith of Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York. “Each day during the COVID-19 crisis, Dr. Craig Smith, chair of the Department of Surgery, sends an update to faculty and staff about pandemic response and priorities. Stay up to date with us,” reads the hospital website.

“The people who have done things well have ongoing, updated messaging…that's easy to find,” says Claire Carlo, president, The Reds Group Strategic Services, LLC.  “Being able to see the evolution of thought builds trust.”

Proactive Communications for Non-COVID Related Inquiries 

In many instances, outbound communications are lacking. An example are messages to patients with non-COVID-related appointments and procedures. These patients tend to have a lot of questions that go unanswered. Providers should be prepared to proactively outline information.

Practices that are open for specific reasons beyond COVID may not be addressing patients' concerns, such as: What happens when someone arrives for their appointment? Is the practice doing in-vehicle registration? Does everyone in the practice wear protective clothing?

“There might be assumptions that it happens, but is the message getting to patients?” Carlo says. For this reason, she advises that humans, not automated prompts, answer phones.

“I don’t know that a lot of people are doing enough to address patient concerns with regard to safety and overcoming fear,” says Carlo.

Telemedicine Confusion

Telemedicine also has led to confusion, Hooper argues. The public is “getting this message to use [telemedicine],” Hooper says. Yet a survey shows most American adults know very little about telemedicine. Educating the public about telemedicine is crucial.

An Opportunity for Insurance Providers

The inherently complicated nature of health insurance poses another communications issue. In addition, the insurance industry uses arcane language. For ages, communicators have argued in favor of simplifying health insurance messaging.

Hooper sees this moment as a perfect opportunity "for [the] health insurance [industry] to clarify [its language]." She adds, "Companies that are transparent...are the ones that will come out on the other side, maybe changing the perception of health insurance companies.”