Crisis Communications: Solutions for 5 top challenges

How to overcome some of the most common challenges in your crisis communication strategy.

The challenges that faced healthcare providers in the early weeks of the pandemic are not only returning, but will be magnified due to flu season and natural disasters.

Providers that have effectively navigated the Covid-19 health crisis thus far have found that prioritizing communication with patients, staff, and vendor partners is essential. But successful execution of a crisis communications plan can prove difficult due to a variety of challenges. Fortunately, there are opportunities for practices to implement improvements that will strengthen their emergency response capabilities for the remainder of the pandemic and years to come.

Here are five common crisis communication challenges and solutions to help overcome them.

Challenge 1. Reduced In-Person Communication

Practices are working to keep in-person communication and contact occurring in their facilities at a minimum to help limit the potential spread of the coronavirus. While worthwhile, the decrease in face-to-face time can make it more difficult for practices to bring its emergency response team together; hold briefings and coordinate efforts; assign responsibilities to staff, if any are unclear or need to be changed; and address questions from team members about protocols and practices, among other issues.

Solutions

Determine what tasks require an in-person discussion or meeting and what can be completed effectively and successfully via virtual communications. But be flexible: what you think may or may not require in-person communication can change following a meeting. Also consider whether taking a hybrid approach (i.e., mix of in-person and virtual communication) can help reduce in-person risk without decreasing communication effectiveness.

Meanwhile, assign responsibility for staff outreach and coordination. Identify the tools necessary for those tasked with these responsibilities to effectively reach and communicate with off-site staff. This may be a combination of text messaging, email, and a communications platform, such as Microsoft Teams and Slack.

Challenge 2. Communication Weaknesses

The pandemic has revealed gaps in many emergency preparedness plans concerning communication and the ability to inform stakeholders (e.g., staff, patients, vendors) about frequent changes to guidelines and safety protocols. Some practices found that typical communication mechanisms, such as email and phone, were not always efficient means of informing stakeholders about developments and doing so in a timely and reliable fashion. Communication was further strained when stakeholders had questions about rule changes.

Solutions

Evaluate the communication mechanisms available to your practice now and understand their potential shortcomings. For example, phone calling is valuable for communicating with a single individual for a period of time, assuming the call is received. Email can be a good way to reach many people at once, but emails are often not read in a timely manner or can end up in spam.

Determine the situations when you will and will not use your practice's existing communication mechanisms and consider where opportunities exist for strengthening communication and building in redundancy that can be essential during a crisis. Consider where other communication mechanisms, such as texting and instant messaging, can address shortcomings and what's needed for your practice to add these mechanisms. In addition, build templates for messaging to expedite their delivery.

Challenge 3. Emergency Messages That Fail to Reach Recipients

During a crisis, effective messaging is critical. Stakeholders must understand what is occurring and how this is affecting what is expected or required of them. Do they need to come to the facility immediately or should they stay away? If they come to the facility, is there special equipment they need to wear or a different door they must use? Is there someone they need to contact or a website they need to visit to learn more about a situation?

Providing stakeholders with clear instructions and information is just part of the effective messaging equation. The other: ensuring stakeholders receive critical updates. If stakeholders do not receive such information, they will proceed with decision-making based upon the most recent information received. Decisions using outdated instructions can increase safety risks, waste valuable time and resources, and create confusion and possibly panic. 

Solutions

Determine mechanisms your practice can use to verify messages are received by stakeholders, such as leveraging two-way texting, read receipt notifications, and electronic signature functionality. Develop a plan for monitoring the verification of received messages and providing any necessary follow-up communications, such as to address questions. Create a plan to conduct necessary outreach to stakeholders who do not confirm receipt of messages. Finally, develop a plan for how you will try to get information to those you cannot confirm, such as posting signs on doors and providing prominent updates on your website.

Challenge 4. Emergency Response During and After a Crisis

When developing and executing a crisis response plan, significant attention is paid to what is required for and during the initial response. But less attention is frequently paid to what follows the initial response—in other words, what practices must do during and following the crisis. There is often a "wait-and-see" approach to these periods. But, as we saw during this pandemic following the initial issuing of restrictions and stay-at-home orders, this wastes time. It also makes the ongoing response, including to changes and updates, and the reopening and resumption of typical operations considerably more difficult.

Solutions

Determine what is required for your practice to effectively execute middle– and end-of-crisis communications. Questions to ask yourself:

  • Are your communication methods and solutions well-suited for delivering ongoing updates and preparing stakeholders for changes?
  • Can they effectively help with streamlining reopening and resumption of services?
  • Are your communications able and set up to help you ramp back up operations, including supporting efforts to fill the schedule and execute patient recall?
  • Have you considered the role communication must play in educating stakeholders about new services (e.g., telehealth), changes to hours/days of operation, and expanded availability of existing services?

If you do not like your answers to any of these questions, implement improvements that will deliver the results your practice needs.

Challenge 5. Overlooking Staff Mental Health

During a crisis, significant attention is paid to responding to developments, such as making changes to the schedule, policies, and protocols, and keeping apprised of those developments likely to come down the road. Within a practice, focus is largely paid to taking care of whatever is necessary to maintain safe operations and keep disruptions to a minimum.

A crisis is also typically a difficult time for staff, with stress levels elevating due to factors such as how the crisis affects the practice and staff members personally and the longevity of the crisis. But during a crisis, staff often work to hide their distress to try to avoid adding to an already tough situation for their teammates and patients.

Solutions

Make staff mental health a cornerstone of your crisis plan. Inform staff of resources, such as employee assistance programs, that they can take advantage of to help manage stress and cope. In addition, don't underestimate the power of small gestures of support. Everything from sharing uplifting messages to providing meals can go a long way toward reminding staff that their hard work and dedication to patient care during difficult periods is valued and appreciated.

Assessing Your Practice's Situation

The crisis communication challenges discussed above represent some of the most common faced by practices and other providers during the pandemic but by no means do they represent all. It's possible — and likely probable — that your practice is experiencing others. Make identifying and solving these communication issues a priority. Doing so will help with your overall emergency response effort. A few questions to ponder:

  1. How are you managing the current surges of coronavirus cases, return of restrictions, and strain on your staff?
  2. How are you preparing for what may be coming, both positive (availability of vaccines and better testing) and negative (equipment shortages, more restrictions, sustained high levels of cases)?
  3. How have you strengthened your emergency communications to help ensure a better response?
  4. What is your biggest emergency communication takeaway from this pandemic?

Hopefully, what you have learned and continue to learn during this pandemic — and the solutions that you implement as a result — will allow your practice to improve its crisis communication and response plan in ways that will help get you through the winter, spring, and beyond.

About the Author

Brandon Daniell is president and co-founder of Dialog Health. He has more than 18 years of business and program development experience in healthcare, having worked with leading employers, physicians, payors and hospital systems. With three private practice physicians in his family, Brandon understands the challenges many practices face concerning patient engagement.