At the Helm

How hospitals are communicating with patients and the community about Covid-19

by Anna Yakovenko, Colin Gelbaugh, and Nick Hauger

As patients turn to their local health care providers for education about COVID-19, hospitals across the country are taking proactive steps to address community concerns and communicate how their normal policies and procedures have changed in preparation for a local outbreak. Read on to see examples of how hospitals are addressing top-of-mind issues and communicating emergency response plans to patients and the media.

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COVID-19 FAQs and testing guidelines

Most hospitals have already established informational pages about COVID-19 on their websites. In addition to addressing frequently asked questions about the virus, hospitals should provide clear guidance to patients about when, where, and how they should seek care. Here are several examples that we've found especially helpful:

  • Northwell Health: Established a "Coronavirus Digital Resource Center" that includes FAQs, a Coronavirus Hotline, a chatbot-guided user search, and links to the latest news and expert advice on the virus.

  • Sutter Health: Provides videos about COVID-19 and how viruses spread from its Chief Quality and Safety Officer. The health system also encourages patients to use its online medical symptom checker before seeking in-person care.

  • Rush University Medical Center: Provides information about how patients can assess their risk and receive care based on experiencing both symptoms and exposure. Rush is encouraging patients to start a video visit if appropriate, with the message, "If you're at risk for coronavirus, your visit will be free."

  • Sentara Healthcare: Provides a decision tree to help patients determine when it is appropriate to receive a test.

  • Cleveland Clinic: Communicates clear steps patients should take from an initial telehealth screen to calling ahead to be seen at its drive-thru screening locations. It states that patients must receive an electronic provider's order to receive COVID-19 testing to limit walk-in volume. It also provides information about when results are available after taking the test.

Changes to visitation policies

Due to the concern of community spread, CDC has issued guidance recommending that gatherings of 50 or more people should be cancelled or postponed for the next eight weeks. Hospitals are following suit by adapting their visitation policies to limit crowds in their facilities.

  • Mayo Clinic: Issued a policy that limits the number of visitors in both hospital and clinic settings. Mayo explains that it is screening all patients and visitors every day upon arrival to the campus to ease concerns about potentially infected individuals being permitted to enter their facilities.

  • Atlantic Health System: Established a policy that no hospital visitors are allowed into their facilities until further notice, with limited exceptions that are clearly listed on its website.

  • Sibley Memorial Hospital: In addition to limiting the number of visitors allowed, Sibley now requires all visitors to sign in and respond to a series of questions that gauge risk of infection.

Postponing elective surgeries:

Many hospitals have postponed elective surgeries to preserve space and resources for a surge in COVID-19 patients. Because cancellation of a surgery can have worrisome implications for some patients, such as those undergoing cancer treatment, hospitals are reassuring patients that any urgent and emergency procedures will still be performed in a safe environment.

  • New York Presbyterian: Sent a statement out on Twitter postponing all elective procedures and surgeries until further notice. The organization also has a news alert ticker on its website describing the policy and a dedicated hotline for patients to receive additional information.

  • Evergreen Health: In its FAQs, Evergreen includes examples of the procedures that will and will not go on as planned across the next 30 days.

Continuity of operations

To ease concerns about the overextension of the health care system and reassure patients that they are still equipped to treat non-COVID-19 cases, some hospitals are releasing information about their efforts to expand capacity, conserve supplies, and protect patients from infection while they seek care for urgent or emergent needs.

  • University of Utah Health: In its press release, University of Utah describes how it has established negative pressure tents to screen potential COVID-19 patients without risk of infecting others in the hospital. The health system also describe how the tents are a proactive approach to expanding internal capacity in the event that a widespread outbreak occurs.

  • Oregon Health & Science University: OHSU has posted a compilation of actions taken by the organization to free up space and conserve supplies.

  • UCSF Health: UCSF is allowing individuals to receive text message alerts to receive the latest updates on actions taken to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, including the completion of its Accelerated Care Units, which are used to triage patients with respiratory illnesses.

Key takeaways for your own communication strategy

As you consider how best to craft your communications to your patients and the community, consider the following:

  1. Use many different channels to disseminate information. Beyond informational pages on hospital websites, consider pushing messages through patient portals, direct email when appropriate, press releases, YouTube videos, podcasts, and social media posts.

  2. Address the most worrisome patient questions—even if answers are unknown. For example, it is still unknown the extent to which viruses survive on surfaces or impact pregnant women, but these questions may be top-of-mind for many patients. Utilize clinical leaders to interpret the best guidance available at the moment. Common FAQs may include:
    1. Who should get tested?
    2. How should you seek treatment?
    3. What’s the best way to protect yourself?
    4. Who is at increased risk?
    5. How is COVID-19 different than the flu?

  3. Equip internal staff to deliver consistent messages. For those that will frequently interact with patients, provide staff with up-to-date talking points about organizational policies and procedures.

  4. Prepare content ahead of time for worst case or anticipated scenarios. Establishing employee notifications, press releases, and content for the website in advance will enable swift responses if and when the organization needs to make a statement.

Your top resources for coronavirus readiness

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You're no doubt being inundated with a ton of information on how to prepare for possible patients with the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19). To help you ensure the safety of your staff and patients, we pulled together the available resources on how to safely manage and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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