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4 keys to effectively communicating with cancer patients during Covid-19

August 25, 2020

    As Covid-19 spread across the country, cancer programs quickly reacted with operational and clinical changes to ensure they could continue treating immunocompromised patients as safely as possible. And while patients are generally more concerned about their cancer than they are of Covid-19, they are still often confused, scared, and anxious about entering medical facilities for screening and treatment.

    How to communicate with patients amid Covid-19

    As the epidemic continues to evolve, along with state and national guidelines, cancer programs need to revisit their communication protocols to ensure that patients receive accurate information, adhere to their treatment, and are prepared for what their visits will entail. To help, we've compiled a list of tactics from providers across the country for you to consider.

    1. Individualize communication based on patient need

    To create messaging that resonates with your patients and community, it's critical to understand their perspectives and top concerns. For instance:

    • Take the time to survey patients about what their concerns and greatest information gaps are—this information allows you to focus on the tactics and messaging that will make the largest difference to your patient population.
    • Understand the different communication archetypes to successfully make your case to different members of your community.
    • Use your patient portal as a mechanism for patients to ask questions or submit concerns.
    • Don't assume access to and comfort with technology. While most people have internet access, it is not a guarantee—which means it's critical to have a multi-pronged outreach strategy.

    2. Ensure constant communication to and from your care team

    Patients look to—and trust—their physicians, nurses, and other care team members for reputable information about their health. Make sure all members of your team—from physicians to navigators to receptionists—have easy access to the most up-to-date information on safety protocols and processes. For example, you can:

    • Keep providers in the loop about what your administrative team is planning. Providers are uniquely positioned to reassure patients and keep them comfortable with your cancer center's current safety protocols. Consider using a morning huddle to disseminate new information to your providers.

    • Arm your staff with the best, most recent information so they can share that with patients—while also letting patients know that safety protocols are subject to change. Because knowledge of Covid-19 shifts daily, real-time communication with your staff is key to make sure everyone is aware of current best practices. A daily morning email can ensure consistent communication at a set time without overwhelming your staff.

    • Understand the frontline perspective. Administrators should make sure they check in on all members of the care team, especially the frontline providers, to understand what patients are asking them and how prepared they are to answer.

    3. Prepare a multi-pronged communications strategy

    The constant change that accompanies this crisis means leaders need to ensure timely and consistent communication through multiple channels to ensure that each patient hears your message at least once. This requires balance, though: Be careful to not confuse or overwhelm patients. For instance:

    • Use visuals to communicate how seriously you are taking patient safety. Allowing patients to see you wiping down surfaces that you don't normally, taping down chairs to keep them six feet apart, or having safety protocol signage across the center can show patients that you are actually cleaning everything you said you were and that your protocols are firmly in place. One of our members received a patient appreciation letter based off this practice.

    • Give patients access to all the information—but direct them to what's most important. This resource provides important details for providers to give guidance on to patients, as well as several examples of thorough communication surrounding Covid-19 practices.

    • Push information through social media to flag important protocols even when patients aren't actively looking. This approach has a higher chance of connecting with your community and showing that you are dedicated to keeping them safe.

    • Don't neglect your organization's website for patient communication. Ensuring a daily update (or weekly depending on the rate of change), as well as patient FAQs, could answer patient questions quickly in the place they are most likely to look first.

    4. Be proactively transparent

    Care interactions will seem new and scary—even to established patients. Anticipate and alleviate their concerns by overexplaining not just logistics, but the reasoning behind them and any changes that have been made. Be sure to build in venues to answer patients' questions. For example, can programs can:

    • Hardwire pre-appointment phone calls to screen patients for Covid-19 symptoms, as well as inform patients of what they can expect on the day of their appointment. Include what they should bring with them, how much time to budget, and safety protocols. Reiterate what process may have changed since the last time they came into the cancer center.

    • Provide the reasoning behind specific safety protocols. Patients may become aggravated by current processes, such as being screened repeatedly, having to wear a mask, or not being allowed visitors. Be upfront and clear about the purpose of what you are requiring from patients.

    • Don't leave patients guessing about what comes after their Covid-19 screening. When speaking about Covid-19 prescreening, be sure to discuss next steps regardless of outcome. Patients may worry that answering positively to a screening question means they won't be seen or treated. Let them know that is not the case and what it would mean to alleviate fear of telling the truth.

    • Offer a dedicated phone line. A dedicated Covid-19 related cancer center phone line is a useful practice to gauge the questions of the community to be able to respond specifically and communicate changes as a result. If resources don't permit a cancer-only phone line, partner with your hospital-wide hotline by providing scripting and information to be shared when applicable.

    • Prepare for new screening and appointment tutorial conversations to take longer and vary considerably by patient. Even with lower volumes, having to answer several questions and explain new policies increases the time each appointment takes.

    How to communicate with patients amid Covid-19

    Consumers are eager for credible information about Covid-19, when and how to seek various types of health care services, and what to expect if they do require in-person care.

    The attached guide includes details to consider when crafting messages for consumers, example communications from health care providers and companies in other industries, and insight into what makes a message effective.

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