The past six to seven months have been stressful. For patients, especially those with underlying conditions that increase their risk, it has been frightening. And, for everyone it has often been confusing. Not only is there a lot of misinformation out there, but there is conflicting information coming from what should be valid sources.
According to studies done during COVID, three out of four adults report feeling stressed about outbreaks in their communities while nearly 70 percent say they are afraid that they, or a member of their family, will catch the virus. These fears are only exacerbated by a lack of information or confusion about what is true or not.
About half the public have been exposed to made-up information about the virus, and a substantial portion express belief in incorrect data. This leads to more problems for both patients and providers as people don't take the right precautions or try to prevent or treat the virus in ways that themselves can be risky.
There have been many disturbing stories in the news over the past several months. A couple in Arizona took chloroquine phosphate—believing it would protect them from becoming infected. Unfortunately, the man died and his wife was hospitalized. A staggering 27 people were killed in Iran after following erroneous advice that drinking large amounts of alcohol would prevent COVID-19. And while those are extreme examples, there are many more who believe other common myths like the idea that you can kill the virus with a hair dryer or by drinking hot water. There have even been conflicting statements about the simple acts of mask wearing and hand washing despite ample scientific evidence that these two things are the most effective tools in slowing the spread of COVID-19.
With the huge amount of misinformation out there, its crucial for patients to hear information from the most trusted source: their healthcare provider. Patients know that you are an unbiased source. They’ve already built a relationship of trust with you. They need you to guide them during this uncertain time. And you may be the only source who can reach out to them directly.
When should communication be sent?
Some organizations worry about sending too much information. However, in a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, more information is better than less. We recommend sending a bi-weekly or monthly newsletter depending on how much information is changing at your organization or in your community. If protocols or testing events are changing a lot, then every two weeks might make more sense. Social media should be updated daily with the latest data and guidance for your area. This includes updating your Google business profile as well. If something unexpected or urgent occurs, an additional email or text message can be sent. If in doubt, err on the side of over-communication.
What information should be sent?
During this time, there are a few categories of information that need to be communicated. These include: general information on the virus, specific information on the outbreak in your area, details on adjustments made to your healthcare organization, as well as ways you are keeping patients safe.
General information on COVID-19 needs to be communicated regularly. Use your website and social media to help patients understand this virus better. Newsletters can also include general data on the pandemic. Share symptoms, factors that put patients at higher risk, and what to do if a patient suspects they might have it. You should also be sharing the latest data and guidelines for your specific area. You can let patients know about testing criteria, updates on infection rates by community, and specific guidelines for the use of masks, hand washing, and social distancing.
Information on how your healthcare organization is responding to the crisis needs to be shared as well. Changes in hours of operation, processes or procedures, and types of treatment occurring should be sent any time adjustments are made. If your waiting area has been closed or adjusted to facilitate appropriate social distancing, communicate that information. Patients also need to know what to do if they become sick. Stories are emerging of some people getting sick but not wanting to weigh down the health system so they avoid the doctor completely. We don’t want that! Encourage patients to get tested if they have symptoms.
Finally, it is crucial that you let patients know what you are doing to keep them safe. A recent MGMA poll showed that many patients aren't seeking medical care because they are afraid. That is resulting in people not getting care they need. Be transparent and open about what you are doing to reduce the chance of transmission. Let them know how they can protect themselves when they come in. A little information goes a long way in helping patients feel more comfortable coming in for an appointment.
While you might be used to using your medical know-how to fight illness, in this battle against COVID-19, communication is just as crucial. Patients are looking to you for guidance. Use all of the channels available to you to help keep patients in the loop so that they can act in a responsible and educated manner. Doing so can help reduce transmission of the virus and hopefully make patients feel safe seeking care when they need it.
For more suggestions on how to communicate effectively during COVID-19, download our guide.