Communications Rx When Ebola Hits Home


October 2014 By Brian Heffron

 

As the CDC, World Health Organization and hospitals from Atlanta to Dallas scramble to deal with Ebola, fear has infected middle America. That means people with colds or seasonal allergies are nervously asking the family doc, ‘Do you think it’s Ebola?”

And that presents a communication challenge for urgent care centers, the point of entry into the health care system for millions in this country.

Healthcare providers should communicate with patients and the public in a thoughtful way. Even if a clinic has had no connection to the disease, it can serve as a medical resource to allay fears with a few simple steps. Offer up your best doctor to local media and health bloggers to explain the facts. Send email to your patient database and use your website and social media to post fact sheets, infographics and 30-second video interviews with your chief medical officer. Have materials at the front desk when patients arrive.

Frankly, that’s the easy part. But what happens if, say, a patient being treated for suspected Ebola at an area medical center first went to the urgent care clinic? What then?

Hopefully the center has developed – and practiced – a crisis response plan before the real deal hits the fan. If not, they can salvage communications by adhering to a few basic practices. We’ve managed crises across a number of industries, including urgent care, and suggest five principles to follow when crisis hits at an urgent care center.

  • Work as a team: Make sure your chiefs of medicine, compliance and operations are working closely with the communications team. After the initial debrief, schedule regular check-ins to discuss what they know, what they are doing on a substantive level and what you’re hearing from the public.
  • Get the facts: What happened? You need details. There will be lots of rumors. Without violating HIPPA, you will want to replace speculation with facts.
  • One voice: Whether it is the CEO, the chief of medicine or the company spokesperson, one person needs to speak for the brand. Too many people talking to the media and the public will lead to mistakes and confusion.
  • Be both proactive and responsive:  Take control of the narrative. Don’t allow a vacuum to exist where media, the Twitter-sphere and the community fills the gaps with the latest gossip. Get out in front of the story and stay in constant contact with the media. Make sure someone is fielding the calls from reporters to know what they need, when they need it. It sounds like basic PR but in a crisis the fundamentals too often get lost.
  • Operate across channels: No longer is the message confined to traditional media outlets. They’re still critical, but you must monitor all social channels, have someone designated to manage digital communications and create content that can be shared and consumed digitally. Like the earlier example, post video updates, fact sheets and graphics.

Certainly HIPPA presents crisis communications roadblocks for medical providers that other businesses don’t face. But the legal requirement for privacy does impact the need to respond quickly and openly about the facts.

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