It’s not too soon to learn lessons from COVID-19 pandemic

July 22, 2020

Here are four critical communications strategies to help deal more effectively with the next crisis.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic remains front and center for healthcare leaders, it’s never too early to learn lessons that can be applied to better deal with the next crisis.

The healthcare industry has spent the last 20 years optimizing bed space and equipment to deliver just-in-time care, much like the manufacturing industry has. Those changes were necessitated by a combination of factors, including reduced reimbursement, the move toward value-based care, greater competition and higher costs for labor and supplies. But it can leave facilities short of resources when the extraordinary occurs.

A health system I formerly worked for generally ran 105%-110% over capacity at the beginning of every day, with the goal of load-balancing patient beds by the end of the day to 100%. Between Thursday and Saturday or Sunday, it was not uncommon for the main hospital to go on diversion. A surge of patients such as that caused by COVID-19 would catch this facility – and too many others – flat-footed and unable to cope effectively with the increased patient volume.

Effective communications strategies won’t make supplies magically appear, but they can encourage unity and promote loyalty among staff and differentiate your facilities in the eyes of the public.

Grab a pen and paper or enable the notes feature on your phone and get ready to review these four critical communications strategies to help deal more effectively with the next crisis.

1.     Internal stakeholders (providers and staff) need accurate information. Especially during a global pandemic, lines of communication from health system leaders to providers, support staff and others must remain open, and the information transmitted must be accurate. Text alerts or intranet sites are a common way to communicate, but do all staffers have ready access to these tools?

Nurses, for example, may have only limited hospital computer access to the internet, but nearly everyone has a smartphone in her pocket. A mobile app for health system staff can help executives provide accurate, up-to-date information directly to those who need it.

With so much misinformation being pumped out regarding the current pandemic, think about how staff would quickly come to rely on information that your health system produces.

2.Patients and community need to know you’re there for them. Most of the information you produce for internal stakeholders would also be helpful to the community at large. Not staffing details or hospital action plans, but information about available resources, local/state/federal guidance about the crisis and other vital information, including ED wait times and the locations of urgent care clinics.

By having a clear plan and publishing critical information directly on an app, patients and potential patients could get quick, self-service guidance about symptoms, whether to head to the ED or urgent care or to stay at home. You could link to references for more information or to hospital policies (new hours, health screening protocols, etc.) directly from the app, freeing staff from the inevitable avalanche of calls.

3.     Think self-service for perioperative patients and for other procedures. Effectively working through trying times entails using your staff to the best of their abilities. The same rule should apply during “normal” times, with providers working at the top of their licenses whenever possible.

But who is making sure patients are doing what they’re supposed to do (or not do) before procedures and surgeries? Likely, that’s a nurse who could be doing many more important things than calling patients. Depending on the type of procedures, perioperative patients can use an app to follow a checklist calculated to the procedure date. Time to order bowel prep supplies? Check. Start perioperative bathing? Check.

Rather than having a nurse call each patient, data from the app can flow to the patient’s health record, creating an exception list and greatly reducing the total number of calls a nurse has to make.

4.     Bi-directional is the way to go. Regardless of whether an app serves internal clients or the community, communication should be bi-directional to allow for better, more meaningful conversations. Rather than a static, one-way flow of information, bi-directional communications can offer a richer user experience.

For an internal app, executives can communicate with staff by videoconferencing, for example, and staff can ask questions directly. Interactivity means staff can contact the right resource at the touch of a phone screen.

Externally, the ability for patients or community members to contact your facility directly will pay dividends in new business and patient loyalty. The importance of the patient experience cannot be stressed enough. People are accustomed to using their phones to do, well, nearly everything. The hospital is no longer the center of the care experience – the patient is.

Although the outlook in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic seems gloomy, the tide eventually will turn, and normalcy will return. Heeding these communications strategies can help position your health system for a brighter future and be more prepared for the next crisis hits.

Bruce Kennedy is Vice President of Provider Development at MobileSmith Health. A healthcare marketing strategist with more than 20 years’ experience in multiple care delivery environments, including surgical patient safety and quality and digital hospital product development, Kennedy leads MobileSmith Health’s expansion of new and existing hospital client and project growth as well as oversees client success operations and client application utilization.