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Crisis Communication in the Healthcare Sector

5 minute read - Posted by Daniel Wagstaff on Oct 8, 2018 6:00:00 AM

It was arguably one of the most dreaded crises of our decade: the first Ebola diagnosis in the U.S. in Dallas, Texas in 2014. Independent reports into the Ebola crisis indicated a general lack of preparedness and stumbling caused by communication failures. Coupled with the frenzied social media, news about the crisis quickly exploded out of proportion, spreading like wildfire and created public panic.

Still, crises in the health sector can go beyond communicable diseases. It could also be mass infections as would be the case with bioterrorism or an accidental spill. Add to the list are mass casualty events, some as a result of terrorism while others accidental.

Irrespective of the healthcare entity you work for, you’re definitely aware that crisis management can be especially stressful and challenging. The decisions and actions performed can quickly become a matter of life and death.

The reality that a crisis can erupt suddenly and without prior notice calls for adequate preparation of all stakeholders in the health sector. That’s where crisis communication comes in. But, what does crisis communication entail?

Why Crisis Communication in the Health Sector of Paramount Importance

Crisis communication in the health sector involves effective correspondence among healthcare executives, attorneys, communication professionals, and providers. It also involves enlightening the public of the action they need to take before an emergency situation.

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Crisis communication is especially essential for hospitals. During an emergency, all roads lead to hospitals, and they suddenly become beehives of activity. This upsurge can create a multitude of issues for medical personnel at hand. In such a crisis, hospitals need to get in contact with staff irrespective of whether traditional means of communication are disrupted.

When an emergency occurs, there can be all sorts of communication challenges for these first responders. Hence, as health care providers, you need to implement, way in advance, disaster crisis communication systems and processes that blend intuitive, team-based systems with competent leadership to ensure all concerned are ready to handle any challenge that may arise.

How to Prepare for Crisis Communication

The key to successfully respond to a crisis is adequate planning. Therefore, before a crisis, each entity in the health sector should create a crisis communication plan. Just how?

It all starts with identifying potential variables in each incident that could have a major impact on the method and content of crisis communications. Different scenarios based on past experiences need to be comprehensively considered to help cover all possible variations.

Secondly, identify key stakeholders to participate in the communication response, and clearly define their roles.

Additionally, a chain of command for communication needs to be established; stipulating who to call and in what order they should be contacted within the first five minutes of a crisis. In line with this, health care providers need to proactively engage the media and build a relationship with them before the crisis.

Understanding Keys to Effective Communication

Communication is an integral part of any organized response to a crisis. Proactive, quick and detailed communication is critical between healthcare entities and their audiences when a crisis occurs. How can you achieve this?

A good starting point is to know who your audiences are and what is important to them. You need to understand who exactly is supposed to receive the information. After that, adjust it and the methods of its delivery based on the needs of each audience.

In the light of this, it is paramount that even before a crisis strikes you cultivate trust with your audiences by being honest and providing facts as they are needed. This will be instrumental in winning their confidence and making them more cooperative in the event of a crisis.

How Crisis Communication is Deployed in the Different Phases of a Crisis

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categorizes a typical crisis into five distant phases: Pre-crisis, Initial, Maintenance, Resolution, and Evaluation. Lets briefly consider how and why crisis communication is essential in every step of a crisis.

  • Pre-Crisis Phase –As discussed earlier, this primarily involves planning, educating, monitoring emerging risks, anticipating possible crises, and reaching out to necessary authorities and organizations with which collaboration is vital in the event of an emergency.
  • Initial Phase -  This is the period when a crisis has started, and healthcare providers commence a pre-planned course of action. At once, those tasked with managing communication begin to furnish clear and accurate direction, providing resources for additional information that may be needed, and calming fears while giving reassurance to the affected.
  • Maintenance Phase – During this phase, the crisis persists, and those mandated give updates on the crisis, corrects any misinformation and details any ongoing hazards. They gather feedback from those affected while continuing to assess the situation.
  • Resolution Phase – At this point, the crisis has effectively ended, but there is still need for communication as recovery of affected people continues. Detailed information on how and why the crisis happened is provided. Also, this is when people are reminded how to be prepared in the event of another disaster.
  • Evaluation Phase – This phase is significant for healthcare providers as it is an opportunity to assess and learn from the crisis – how efficient was the response, how could it be improved, and what lessons were learned.
The management reviews the crisis communication plan and improves on it accordingly. A post-crisis report is prepared that comprehensively documents the crisis, response and lessons learned.

How Emergency Mass Notification Systems Enhance Crisis Communication

To be sure, technology has dramatically advanced the way crisis communication is carried out in this day and age. More and more healthcare providers have deployed emergency mass notification systems.

The fact that mass notification systems are fast, real-time and multi-channel makes then indispensable for all healthcare entities. These systems are crucial to keeping all teams prepared for and updated during a crisis.

Time and again, these systems have proven that they can help to prevent a crisis from becoming a catastrophe. It helps healthcare providers to respond appropriately and in an organized manner during an emergency with minimum possible loss of lives.

How do Mass Notification Systems Work?

When a crisis suddenly arises, there is an urgent need to communicate to subscribers who could be directly or indirectly affected by the said crisis. Upon being engaged, a segmented multi-channel alert is sent at once via voice call, text and email to the 1,000 people assigned asking them to take a specific action and to acknowledge when they do so.

Subsequently, the system allows the sender of the alert to follow up with those who did not respond, starting a two-way text conversation with management. This allows management to gain insight as to why those recipients are not safe and if they have direct insight into the threat causing the crisis.

Ensure the Message is Brief, Simple and Clear

When sending messages to the hospital and other emergency personnel, it is vital to keep things as simple as possible. The reason is that during a crisis, the recipients’ stress levels could impair, albeit temporarily, their reaction time, ability to focus and their command of language.

Research has shown that an emergency notification should contain no more than three points, composed in not more than three sentences and not exceeding 30 words.

Keeping the message concise and straightforward will ensure the recipients fully understand the message, know how they should respond and what action they need to take.

Hospitals and Health Care Providers Should Continue To Bolster Their Crisis Communication Plans

In the unfortunate event of a crisis, you will have won half the battle if you make proper preparations before and have robust contingency plans in place. The necessary steps of effective crisis communication are not rocket science. Still, they require that all entities in the health sector make adequate advance preparation to minimize damage efficiently and quickly.

Whether you’ve got a minor disruption or a serious crisis, you need to reliably reach people in real time, no matter where they are. RedFlag Mass Notification is the industry’s easiest-to-use crisis communication system.

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Topics: crisis communications