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Hospitals in Crisis: A Multi-faceted Communications Strategy to Bring the Patients Back

By Doug Dobie
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While the surge of COVID-19 cases has heavily affected a small percentage of hospitals in dense urban areas such as New York City, the reverberations have been felt nationwide. Media images and public health messaging have impacted most of the 5,000 hospitals in the US, causing unprecedented declines in patient visits.

For example, a highly regarded cancer center in New Mexico received over 500 referrals per month in January and February of this year for treatments. In April, referrals were fewer than 100 patients, an 80 percent decrease. Yet, the two-year trend line reveals the need for cancer treatment did not diminish, people just stopped seeking proper care. The need for care has not declined, it has just been pushed out. Meanwhile, the progressive characteristics of cancer advance unabated.

Throw in to this mix the cancellation of elective surgeries, the shelter in place orders and the ban on families accompanying patients, and the consequences are dire. Much needed preventative and early detection care have been all but eliminated.

Patient Return Trajectory

Hospitals cannot afford to sit back and wait for patients to return en masse; the better approach is to reach patients through a more intentional adoption cycle.  Understanding flattening curves is now part of our collective zeitgeist. Our health system is faced with an ominous counter surge and will need to get in front of it, alleviating apprehension, to flatten it.

Urge to Prevent the Surge

Overcoming patient apprehension requires a multi-faceted communication strategy with built-in surge protectors. The strategy contemplates public health policy, physical location safety, hospital administration and clinician alignment, and the right tone and tenor of the messaging itself.  For surge protection, the care provider will need to define segments most in need and target them with relevant and specific messaging.

  • State and local public health officials: This should be an awareness campaign for specific chronic conditions, most notably cancer as discussed earlier. Further, elective surgeries which are managed and scheduled, need to be broadcast state-wide with a public health stamp of reassurance.
  • The hospital or physician offices must appear safe and secure. In a hospital, “proof points” such as temporary facilities, separate entrances, walled-off areas, ubiquitous personal protective equipment, glass sneeze guards, and careful management of visitors and family members are the optics of reassurance.
  • Inevitably, tensions between hospital leadership and patient-facing care providers have surfaced during the pandemic. It is undeniable that health professionals were placed in dangerous and difficult circumstances caring for COVID-19 patients. However, a more pervasive threat across the entire health system has been the vast number of furloughed or laid-off clinicians. Hospital leadership and clinical staff need to reach out to their community personally – to reassure specific patient populations that safe, high-quality care is available now.
  • The communication strategy needs to feel organic and genuine. Actual health care professionals reaching out and letting patients know it’s safe to seek the care they need. Reassure patient populations by providing personal antidotes of other patients who have successfully received care recently. Hospitals will align messaging with its patient-facing provider network supplying them with daily updates and success stories.

A segmentation strategy

A patient micro-segment is finding its way back to receiving care recently since the admittance low points of mid-April. However, it is not enough, nor does it include the most at-risk populations. Health providers need to develop a segmentation strategy with specific positioning, messaging and call to action for each audience.

  • Use a multi-faceted approach partnering with community leaders, associations, and non-profit service providers to offer trusted advice and reassurance.
  • Do not try to go it alone. Build state, local and community level support; align messaging and proof points and talk to specific audiences.

And plan on managing the patient return-to-care curve or, more than likely, be faced with a pent-up surge.

Doug Dobie is CEO of Dobie Associates, a leading business strategy firm specializing in healthcare, technology, and public safety consulting. Doug also consults for Aurore, a strategy frameworks and analytics solutions provider. 

Dobie Associates is a strategic partner of BrandingBusiness.