Communicating about Essential Care during COVID-19

By The SHSMD Team posted 05-19-2020 11:47 AM

Even while responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals and health systems must also plan for a return to non-emergent care. This calls for coordination among clinical, planning and marketing teams, as hospitals or health systems must not only be safe but communicate that to community members who are still actively concerned about contracting COVID-19.

Timing Reopening

Knowing where your organization and community is on this path from COVID-19 response and recovery will help you strategize for the present and prepare for the future. In reality, there will be many markets where response and recovery will ebb and flow over many months, requiring strategists to be vigilant for change and able to pivot in response. There are several models that predict the spread of COVID-19 on a regional or local basis, as reported by the AHA in its Compendium of Models that Predict the Spread of COVID-19. As each community varies, you can customize or weigh the data based on your local circumstances. 

Bill Gates, in an article about the medical breakthroughs that he believes the pandemic will create, reminded readers that the crisis will be a long haul. He compared the present to late 1942 after Britain had won the first land victory of the war. Winston Churchill declared, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” 

Scheduling Considerations

Hospitals have cancelled or postponed elective surgeries due to COVID-19 and some anticipate a surge in volume once they regain the capacity to provide these services. Jeffrey Kraut, executive vice president for strategy and analytics, Northwell Health, and associate dean for strategy, Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, said that Northwell will be running its surgery center seven days a week once that capacity is restored. However, some hospitals and health systems plan a more conservative return to elective procedures, given the strain on the workforce due to COVID-19 and/or forecasts of a slower demand as patients worryabout safety and/or costs and continue to postpone treatment.  

Cancer screenings have also declined dramatically and health care experts are particularly concerned about high-risk populations. Hospitals and health systems may need to reschedule screenings for cancer and other serious conditions based on risk.

Considerations for Communications

The toolkit COVID-19 Pathways to Recovery — Considerations and Resources to Guide Hospitals and Health Systems (restricted to AHA organizational members only) lays out the paramount messages to communicate about resuming care.

  • “We are ready, safe and open for you."
  • “Emergencies don’t stop, and neither do we."
  • "Thanks to our health care heroes."
  • “The health and safety of our community – including our workforce – remain the top priority. “


Julia Yoder, marketing and public relations director at Brookings Health System in Brookings, South Dakota, shared their press release with SHSMD. The release noted the safety protocols that the system put into place, including:

  • Screening patients, visitors and hospital staff for COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Requiring every individual to wear a mask.
  • Requiring front-line staff to use protective eye wear and other personal protective equipment.
  • Implementing restrictions on visitors (but allowing a support person in certain circumstances).
  • Mandating physical distancing, extra cleaning measures and isolation for infectious patients.
The release also noted that the system is prepared to cease non-essential procedures in case of a surge of COVID-19 cases. 

Jana Bray, community relations director at Rockcastle Regional Hospital and Respiratory Care Center inMt. Vernon, Kentucky, also shared a press release. It emphasizes the collaboration involved in developing the plan for reopening and the continued disease surveillance. “Kentucky Hospital Association (KHA), working with Kentucky Public Health (KPH) and hospitals throughout the state, including Rockcastle Regional, has created a three-phased approach to guide the health care community through the process. The plan is based on recommendations from the National Coronavirus Response and incorporates increased surveillance of new cases. The phased approach will allow time to monitor and rapidly respond to resurgence of COVID-19 transmission, “ she said.

The hospital also published an open letter to their community as a full-page newspaper advertisement, which was also published on  its website and via social media. The letter detailed the safety precautions the hospital staff are taking and urged patients with serious or potentially serious conditions not to “wait it out.”

Pella Regional Health Center in Pella, Iowa, issued a press release specifically about the availability of virtual health.

 Andrea Barker, director, marketing and communications, shared a press release detailing safety precautions and urging patients not to forgo medically essential care. The press release included a partial list of medically essential care. 

Nichole Stevens, director of marketing at Roper St. Francis Healthcare in Charleston, South Carolina, shared the television ad it aired to announce the health system’s readiness to “return to better than normal” as well as thank the community for its support. Roper St. Francis’s print ad reiterates the message of thanks and adds specifics about safety precautions. “But most of all, as we’ve provided care during this time, your love and support have sustained us. You confirmed what we already knew – we can and will get through this together. Thank you for your prayers, the words of encouragement and generous donations. As we recover together, please know that we’re here for you as always. We’re limiting time in waiting rooms, performing intense cleaning and wearing masks and gloves to ensure your safety.” An email to patients also specifically urges readers to call 911 or go to the emergency department for emergencies and to keep routine medical appointments.

Amy Stevens, vice president of marketing and communications at Tidelands Health in Murrells Inlet in coastal South Carolina, shares, “We've launched a ‘Safe in Our Care’ initiative. It includes a series of operational processes and protocols to reassure patients as they seek needed care. We're supporting ‘Safe in Our Care’ with a multichannel campaign, including digital, outdoor, social, earned media and point of service. We're also leveraging our content platforms, including video, podcasts and supporting stories on our health news platform, Direct messaging is going to key constituents, including elected officials and members of our 50-plus group. Finally, we've done training and developed scripting for our clinical teams and call center operators to operationalize and support the program,” she said. The website integration details the safety measures. 

Considering Imagery

Marketers are rethinking the imagery that they use, including those that show people without protective gear or sitting near one another. Bobby Beeman, communications and public affairs manager at Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles, Washington comments on the tradeoffs. “All good marketing that drives decisions hits the right person, in the right place, at the right time. So in the moment, what do your customers/patients need/want to see? In this moment, you have an opportunity to change up some of what you're doing to hit people where they are in life (and that's mostly home, preventing the spread of COVID)… Right now is an opportunity to meet people where they are, and that includes images or copy that tells the story of safety and coronavirus prevention,” she noted. 

To discuss marketing, communications, strategy and more with fellow health care strategists and share materials, please visit MySHSMD

If you have stories to share about your organization’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, please share here.

For more to help your hospital or health system’s COVID-19 response, visit SHSMD’s collection of resources for hospital and health system marketing, communications, business development and planning. The AHA and SHSMD collaborated to create a Resources for COVID-19 Communications.