6 Communication Tactics for the COVID-19 Pandemic

March 24, 2020

As practices grapple with rapid change over the last week, physicians and practice leaders are being barraged with information, issues, and staff concerns. In times like these, clear and accurate communication are the foundations of effective operations, patient care, and employee well-being.

Here are six essential communication tactics to put into place now.

1. Establish a central communication “command.”
Creating a unified system for messaging staff, providers, and patients is critical because it establishes a single point of truth. Physicians and administrators in Seattle, Chicago, and other regions with significant numbers of cases say that having a central point of communication is the #1 priority as practices prepare for COVID-19.

A physician I spoke with last week shared that before his group put centralized communication in place, everyone’s email boxes quickly overflowed with messages from individuals sending emails about all kinds of information, and hitting “reply all” when they really didn’t need to. It distracted providers and team members from getting critical information faster.

Designate one person as your communications chief. Put this person in charge of sending accurate and approved information regularly, by email (or text), leading internal communication, and coordinating the information from the health system and government agencies. The last thing you need is well-intentioned employees sending out unnecessary information or inaccurate information about things like the availability of PPE or the details about changes in patient scheduling and screening protocols.

Some large practices have set up a central phone number and email address for employees and patients to get questions answered. Whatever process you choose, make sure it is clear, consistent, and led by someone who has the authority to get accurate information disseminated quickly.

2. Keep information flowing to patients as things change.
Information is changing daily and sometimes even hourly. Keep your patients informed using email or text. Or, by phone if it’s a patient who needs to be seen, or who has an urgent medical need.

Last week I received three different emails from a client. The practice had to keep modifying its patient hours and surgery case cancellation policy to comply with state mandates and the governor’s announcements. The messages were practical, compassionate, and written over a physician’s signature.

As of last Friday, there was a great deal of geographic variance among practices in terms of office hours, staffing levels, and operational protocols. This week that will probably change. The important thing is to stay ahead of things by providing patients with the right information. Consider weaving into your practice’s messages the latest information from local agencies, as well as information about how to slow the spread of the virus. When this information comes from their physician, patients trust its accuracy.

3. Be relentless about continuous staff communication.
Under normal conditions, one of our most common recommendations for the practices we advise is that they need to improve their internal communication. Poor communication is often the cause of mistakes, misunderstandings, and employee dissatisfaction.

This crisis is an opportunity for every practice to step up and create lasting improvements in the way they communicate with employees. Right now, if you don’t relentlessly and continuously communicate with your team, misinformation will circulate, fear will build, and before you know it, employees will become distracted and unable to do their jobs effectively.

The good news is that an ounce of prevention can prevent a pound of cure. But you must be proactive.

Most importantly, staff need to hear from managers and physicians regularly about what is changing in the practice, how this crisis will impact them personally, and what they are supposed to tell patients. Group emails from your communications chief are important but should not be the only way you communicate. Especially if you have asked staff to work from home. Staff who are not used to telecommuting will quickly feel disconnected and isolated if they don’t talk with people from the “mother ship.”

As part of your central communication command, push updates daily or every other day, depending on how quickly COVID-19 is spreading in your area. In addition, set up virtual meetings using a video conferencing platform such as Microsoft Teams – a great option for the many practices that use Office 365 because it’s included at no additional cost. A number of practices already use the chat feature in Teams but may be unaware of the option for video. Other free or low cost video conferencing platforms include Zoom, GotoMeeting and Skype. All of which can be accessed on mobile devices and iPads, in addition to the staff person’s computer.

Make the time to call and check-in with your telecommuting staff individually, to make sure their questions and concerns are handled. It’s a mistake to reason that you are “too busy” for this. Using a headset and a mobile device, you can check-in with providers and staff by phone while you are out for a walk, driving to the hospital, or doing something else. It’s important to speak with them.

Finally, although in-person staff meetings of more than ten people aren’t advised in many places at this point, some practices may still be holding them. If yours is one of these, be sure everyone practices recommended hand sanitizing and social distancing procedures.

4. Start conversations now about ‘what-if.”.
This idea comes from a smart cardiology practice administrator in Chicago whose hospital had hit surge capacity last Friday when we spoke. She is putting a “what-if” team in place this week to discuss and prepare for uncomfortable “what-if” scenarios like: What if we can’t find enough N95 masks – what do we do? or, How will we shift our schedule if one of our physicians tests positive for COVID-19?

I’m reminded of that scene in the film, Apollo 13, when the NASA engineers on the ground dump all the parts and bits that the stranded astronauts have available to them on the disabled ship. The engineers had to get creative and figure out a solution to a problem no one predicted they would face. As we all know, they did, and Apollo 13 landed safely.

This kind of creative thinking is what your practice must start doing this week. Consider all the uncomfortable “what-if” scenarios you might face in the coming weeks, and start thinking about the various ways you can deal with them.

5. Listen.
Listening is an often-forgotten communication skill. But during times of crisis and confusion it’s extremely important.

When you spot a team member who is struggling, ask simple, open-ended questions that get them to open up: “How are you feeling?” “How are things going for you at home now that the kids are not in school?” Listen patiently to their answer, and try to stay present.

This can be difficult when you have a to-do list of twenty-seven things, but the support you provide the staff or physician by just listening intently will go a long way toward making them feel heard.

6. Tell your team to take care of themselves.
Don’t downplay the importance of rest, hydration, sleep, and the well-being of your team. It’s important for staff as well as physicians and other providers.

We are asking a lot of our healthcare teams right now. We’ve all seen the videos of physicians and nurses hitting their exhaustion point in Italy.

Take simple steps now to make sure physicians and staff take care of themselves over the coming weeks and months. Make it clear that no one will be viewed negatively if they don’t feel well and need to call out sick. Watch the number of hours that physicians and other providers are working. Encourage sleep.

One administrator I talked with is telling her providers and staff to get outside and walk several times a day, even if it’s only for five minutes. She’s inspiring them by example, forcing herself to take short walking breaks at least once a day.

Some practices have put “A” and “B” teams in place – one team of physicians and nurses is set up to conduct virtual visits from home, while the other conducts in-person visits and sees hospitalized patients.

Whichever ideas you suggest or implement, be sure everyone does something to maintain their health and well-being – including you.

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