Messaging in the Midst of a COVID-19 Surge

By The SHSMD Team posted 07-22-2020 10:51 AM

Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System (SVMHS) in Monterey, California. SVMHS is dealing with a spike in cases that started around Memorial Day and has not let up since,” said Alan Shoebridge, the director of marketing and communication. “Every week since Memorial Day we’ve set a new high in COVID-19 patient admissions. A big part of it is the holidays. We saw a spike after Mother’s Day, after Memorial Day and now after July 4. We’ve completely filled our initial dedicated COVID-19 space and opened up our overflow area, which is close to capacity.” SVMHS has already prepared additional overflow space. “I have a feeling we’re going to be on this roller coaster ride here for a while yet, but our organization was prepared for these eventualities,” said Shoebridge.

One factor is that Salinas Valley’s economy is largely agricultural. Workers migrate to the area at certain times of the year and need to be together on the job site and many live in small homes with crowded conditions. SVMHS partnered on a program where nurses go to the agricultural fields, talking with workers and showing them how to use masks and implement other safety practices both at work and at home. Over 100 different companies participate in this program and 10,000 workers have taken part so far. SVMHS also works with a major industry association that set up quarantine housing for workers in hotels. “Our nurses visit and bring food and other necessities.”

Watch a video to learn more about the Ag outreach program.

Internal Communications Flowing Externally

As Shoebridge pointed out, health system staff have the same information needs as the general public – reliable, authoritative and transparent communications. The marketing team develops materials for internal communications and then adapts them as needed for the community. One of the new communications vehicles they started was a weekly video update from the CEO.

“These videos are great for the high-level message. We want to be really transparent about the volume of positive cases that we’re seeing and at the same time, show that we’re managing the volume and that it’s safe to come to the hospital. We’re showing optimism and transparency so that people don’t put off issues like heart conditions,” Shoebridge said. The community responded positively. “The metrics are looking really good. People are interested in what’s going on.”

When Competitors Come Together to Deliver a Cohesive Message

SVMHS and all four county hospitals plus the county health department are in the middle of planning a messaging campaign that will deliver a coordinated and comprehensive response. The campaign will use social media, print, television ads and digital media to send the shared messaging. “It started with a conversation among the marketing/PR staff at the different hospitals and how they need to make sure that the community hears and acts on the messages. There’s a real gravity that you get when ‘competitors’ come together to deliver a cohesive message. It weighs more and takes things to the next level. We think it will break through the noise.”

Targeting the Hispanic Community

While the coordinated campaign will address all demographics, there will be a special focus on the Hispanic community, which makes up more than 70 percent of the local COVID-19 cases. “We always make sure that our materials are culturally competent and important communications are available in Spanish. We had a Facebook Live talk that drew a peak live viewership of about 800 people and has had more than 34,000 video views. We also develop a lot of videos in Spanish and are adding more Spanish-language materials to the web site.”

Helping to Fight Burnout

Hospital staff are experiencing tremendous stress levels due to the continuing surge. Early on, Shoebridge and his team began daily email messages to keep staff informed and have done them ever since. “We provide updates on COVID-19, hospital policies and other news, but almost every communication also has something about self-care and handling stress to prevent burnout.” Shoebridge emphasized, “We need to take care of the front-line providers especially and offer tools, articles, webinars and wellness classes that help them. Being transparent also helps, since the staff know we’re open about what’s going on. Your employees need to know about any changes before the public does.”

You Have to be Flexible

Asked for the biggest takeaway that he’d share, Shoebridge said, “The big thing for SHSMD members is that we have to be flexible and nimble. The environment is dictating a lot of the responses you can take. You absolutely have to embrace the uncertainty and not hold to tightly to any plan.” He added, “The silver lining is that you can experiment more now. We’ve done a lot more with our education and outreach, a lot of the things that we’ve considered before but not done. Now is the time to try those kinds of things, to be flexible and think about innovative partnerships as well as things you’re doing yourselves. This is truly the disruption our industry did not see coming.”

More Resources

Bridging Worlds: The Future Role of the Health Care Strategist describes the skills and attributes health care strategists need to thrive in a time of fast change, including open collaboration, transparency and pivotability. SHSMD members can take a free and confidential self-assessment.

SHSMD members also have free access to Preparing for the Post-COVID-19 Health Care Landscape: A SHSMD Resource Digest, a collection of resources on communications, leveraging emerging opportunities and expanding virtual care and engagement.

Renown Health's Approach to Keeping the Community Safe, Communicating on COVID-19 describes how the health system based in Reno, Nevada, collaborated with public health organizations on messaging.

Creating Strategic Partnerships with Employers describes several successful partnerships with employers and includes guidelines and lessons learned for starting and maintaining collaborations. Strategic Alliances and Partnerships for Population Health provides resources on how hospitals and health systems are working with other organizations to improve population health.

Encouraging Healthy Behavior Change: New Strategies and Partnerships describes how hospitals and health systems have fostered healthy behavior changes.

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