Why medical practices need a mass communication plan

When there's a crisis, your practice needs a mass communications strategy.

On most days, communication in a medical practice is given little thought. Processes are in place to use a combination of communication mechanisms like phone call, email, text message and print mail to complete routine, daily tasks. These cover everything from scheduling and confirming patient appointments, to coordinating physician and staff schedules, to arranging the occasional vendor appointment.

But on occasion, these more individualized outreach efforts can not only prove inadequate but may also jeopardize safety and satisfaction. The occasion: emergencies and crises. That's when a practice — even one with a small staff and patient base — needs a mass communication plan, also referred to as a crisis communication plan. It's also when a practice needs the ability to execute that plan in a manner that's highly efficient and effective at reaching those affected by the incident, which will largely hinge upon the communication mechanisms leveraged. An effective mass communication plan allows a practice to send timely messages out to affected stakeholders fast and track whether such messages successfully reached their intended audiences.

Let's look at some of the times when a practice is most likely to need to execute a mass communication plan and then review why it's best that text messaging serves as the communication backbone for the plan.

Public health crisis. We'll lead with the type of emergency that remains a challenge for many medical practices: a public health crisis. Over the past two-plus years, practices have needed to get timely messages out to patients, staff and vendors about the various ways COVID-19 has affected their operations — everything from temporary closures, to changes in hours, to new safety protocols, to positive tests. Ongoing challenges associated with the COVID pandemic and future health crises will require practices to initiate their mass communication plan.

Natural and manmade disasters. We're in the midst of tornado season for some parts of the country, hurricane season is about to start for other parts, heatwaves continue to affect swaths of the country, and large, active wildfires are being reported in multiple states. These and other disasters cause significant damage to practices or can lead to substantial disruptions in operations if disasters affect surrounding areas. Meanwhile, manmade disasters, such as transportation accidents and cyberattacks, can do the same.

With an effective mass communication plan in place, a practice can better inform its patients, staff and vendors of any change in operations and help ensure these individuals stay off the roads and out of harm's way.

Weather. Extreme weather can have the same effects as disasters, forcing medical practices to temporarily cease operations or potentially worse. The likes of a blizzard, hailstorm and flood can damage facilities and the roads leading to and around them.

If the impact is severe enough, thus requiring significant repairs, a practice may find that it needs to remain closed for extended periods, reduce operating hours, require patients and staff to take different routes to get to the facility, or undertake other changes that disrupt typical operations. An inability to convey time-sensitive updates to individuals who need to come to the practice can lead to increased safety risks, missed appointments or late arrivals, and frustration with the experience of traveling to the facility.

Power outages/interruptions. Power outages and interruptions occur regularly throughout the country. Various factors cause power interruptions — everything from the disasters and weather issues we're already discussed to utility practices and even vegetation patterns. Practices with generators may be able to "power through" a power outage, but if a practice lacks a generator or an outage is prolonged, operations will be disrupted. Practices need the ability to rapidly and effectively inform those affected by the change in operations, both when the outage forces a change in operations and when power has been successfully restored.

The good news is that power outages by themselves are not as dangerous as disasters or extreme weather and will likely affect other types of healthcare providers (e.g., hospitals, ambulatory surgery centers) more significantly than practices. But those who travel to a practice only to find it closed will likely be unhappy that they made the unnecessary trip. Such frustration will likely be elevated for those patients who have urgent care questions, took time off work, changed plans, invested in sitters and/or traveled long distances for their appointment. In fact, some patients may not be able to reschedule their appointment easily if they must deal with any of these and other barriers to care. An effective mass communication plan can reduce such dissatisfaction and better ensure patients make it to their appointments.

Active shooters and workplace violence. News reports regularly remind us that incidents like active shooters and workplace violence are serious threats to any business. Did you know that healthcare organizations face an elevated risk? An Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) study showed that the rate of serious workplace violence incidents was more than four times greater in healthcare than in private industry on average. Furthermore, healthcare alone accounts for nearly as many serious violent injuries as all other industries combined. OSHA has cited a "lack of means of emergency communication" as a reason for elevated risk.

An effective mass communication plan can quickly inform practice team members — and possibly staff of other businesses in a shared building — of what is occurring within the practice. With this information, recipients can make appropriate, timely decisions about how best to assist with any response while helping keeping others away from the location of the incident. Effective mass communication can help keep others from coming to the practice while the incident is unfolding, reducing risk of further harm.

Physician absence. We've noted the potential negative impacts of patients traveling to a practice only to find that their appointment has been canceled. While this may be a minor inconvenience for some patients, it can be a significant challenge for others — potentially one that may affect their health if they have a more urgent care question or need.

An unexpected physician absence — and one when another physician is unable to fill in — is yet another time when a mass communication plan comes in handy. The sooner a medical practice can inform patients of the need to cancel their appointment due to an absence, the more time they and their family members/friends have to adjust their schedules. Outreach that explains the reason for the cancellation can reduce potential harm to patient satisfaction.

The unknown. Finally, there's every other possible emergency and crisis. Maybe there's a water main break. Maybe your phone system suddenly goes down. Maybe you're moving to a new location. What scenarios have you encountered or are you more likely to encounter due to your location? After all, "stuff" happens. You always want to be prepared for the unknown, and part of that preparation should include your ability to execute an effective mass communication plan. There is a very good chance that your local municipality or power company is already using texting to communicate about the unknown.

Why text messaging should be the backbone for medical practices' emergency communication plans

When faced with an emergency or crisis, time is of the essence. The faster and more effective a practice can respond to any of the incidents discussed above, the more likely it is that patients, staff and visitors will be kept safe and not inconvenienced as much by an operations disruption. To get timely messages out to those affected by an emergency or crisis, texting should be the communication channel of choice, with the usage of phone trees and email as secondary and supporting options.

Consider the following:

  • Pew reports that 97% of Americans own a cell phone. There is a high probability that those individuals a practice is trying to reach will have their mobile phone with them or at least within earshot.
  • Texting is a proven form of communication, with statistics showing that 95 percent of text messages are read within 3 minutes of being sent (Forbes) 98 percent of text messages are read (Dynmark) and 90 seconds is the average response time for a text (CTIA).
  • Backup generators are standard for cell phone towers, meaning that if main power goes off, cell phones still work.
  • A growing number of healthcare and non-healthcare organizations rely on texting for emergency communication. The federal government has its own emergency text messaging system — Wireless Emergency Alerts — which has been used more than 70,000 times.
  • Most phone calls are unanswered, voicemail is "going the way of the dinosaurs" and the average person receives more than 100 emails per day, with many going unread or not read for a significant period of time.

The unmatched engagement effectiveness, ease of sending messages, and ability to monitor outreach success, paired with low setup and outreach costs, make text messaging the strongest communication option for interacting with recipients. This is especially true when a message is urgent, and a practice wants to best ensure that the communication is read and acted upon quickly. Practices should consider how texting can help strengthen the communication component of their current emergency preparedness and business continuity plan. Like preparing for an emergency and crisis, the time to deploy texting is before it's needed.

Brandon Daniell is president and co-founder of Dialog Health. He has 20 years of business and program development experience in healthcare, having worked with physicians, employers, payors and hospital systems. With three private practice physicians in his family, Brandon understands the challenges many medical practices face concerning patient engagement.