Ebola has arrived in the United States. Not so much as the long-dreaded pandemic, but as a perception of vulnerability and unpreparedness that incubates a real sense of fear among the our citizens generally, and healthcare professionals specifically. One need look no further for evidence that this virus has entered the collective conscious of 320 million Americans than the nearly universal jerk of heads in response to a sneeze on an airplane. It doesn’t matter if a patient with Ebola ever presents at your facility or not, the virus is on the minds of every patient and employee, and they aren’t soon to forget about it.
Panic is spreading faster than this terrible, deadly disease is ever likely to, and hospitals and healthcare providers across the nation are being asked: Are you ready?
This question is being asked by employees, the press, local, state and federal elected officials, facility regulators, and the general public. While “being ready” is, of course, the most important issue facing facilities at the moment, how, when, who and what you say in response to this short question can, and likely will if asked in the face of a confirmed case, have lasting, long-term effects on your facility.
The answer to this simple question is a complex one. Infection control was not a top-of-mind issue for most Americans until nurses at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital became infected with Ebola while caring for a patient with the disease. Suddenly, what was a problem in West Africa became a perceived crisis on our shores, traveling faster in our 24/7 media culture than the ill-advised domestic airline flight of one of the nurses on the Presbyterian care team. Assurances from medical experts about containment and the slim chance of Ebola spreading have been drowned out by breathless coverage across the media landscape and the unfortunate politicization of the issue. Infection control protocols and the training of front-line healthcare workers have been questioned, and misinformation is rampant.
In this environment, hospitals and healthcare providers – their patients, protocols, staff and capabilities – are in the spotlight. Effective communications are imperative. A systematic, carefully thought out and swiftly and perfectly executed communications plan will not only help quell immediate fears, but will also enable you to maintain confidence among those in your community so that people know your hospital is prepared to handle the situation while also treating other patients to keep business as usual. Not only knowing what you are doing, but being in a position to communicate efficiently and effectively that you know what you are doing, will allow you to maintain current confidence in your facility among stakeholders and provide an opportunity to enhance your most valuable commodity - trust.
Prepare for the Worst
The first step is making sure that your hospital has a detailed and up-to-date crisis communications plan (“CCP”) that can be activated the very moment a patient with Ebola symptoms walks into your facility. While every situation is different, a CCP gives you a solid starting point. If you don’t have a CCP, there’s no better moment to invest the time and resources necessary to establish one than right now.
The CCP should be flexible so your team can adapt it based on the situation at hand. It should, at a very minimum, feature elements including:
- Contact information for an internal response team and process for reaching all needed members quickly.
- Contact information for regional public health authorities and protocols and triggers for reaching out to them. This information should include designated communications contacts for responding agencies.
- A process for cascading internal communications to reach all hospital employees quickly.
- Media policies for directing onsite media and media calls.
- A patient communication protocol.
- A series of potential scenarios. Scenarios including a patient with Ebola-like symptoms presenting at the hospital should be addressed, and these scenarios should be accompanied by draft statements regarding the hospital’s procedures, policies and response.
- Common hospital and Ebola messages that help ensure that basic information is easily accessible.
It is vital that all communications be updated as the international disease response evolves. Communications should also be vetted by legal counsel to ensure their compliance with patient privacy, labor and other regulations.
It also is essential that the plan is practiced and worst-case scenarios considered and acted out by the hospital team. Additionally, having multiple professionally media-trained facility leaders is a must. The best CCP can be rendered totally ineffective by poor delivery. A title doesn’t qualify someone to stand in front of television cameras, being good at standing in front of cameras and being able to think on one’s feet and stay painfully on message, does.
Provide Information and Assurance to Your Community
As the Ebola story evolves, hospitals and healthcare providers have opportunities to educate and reassure their communities before a case presents. A few ways to do this include:
- Outline your hospital’s Ebola protocol. Address specific issues that have occurred at hospitals where the disease spread and describe what you have in place to avoid similar mistakes.
- Highlight the resources you have put in place to prepare for Ebola, or any other potential infectious disease outbreak.
- Talk to your elected officials and government entities. Be proactive and tell them the actions you have under way that best position your hospital to respond, should a situation occur.
- Share the expertise of your clinicians and be a voice of reason. Offer physicians who know about Ebola and similar viruses as sources for area media and organizations. Develop an FAQ on Ebola and share it with your community.
- Provide simple ways for concerned citizens to contact you, such as a central e-mail address or phone number for Ebola concerns.
Employees are a critical audience during a public health scare. Communicate to employees regularly to maintain confidence in your Ebola protocols. Set up an internal hotline for questions and an intranet to provide all staff with specific details on plans, screenings, symptoms and other healthcare resources. By establishing these internal channels, you can make sure your staff members’ questions never go unanswered.
While it is unlikely that Ebola will ever come to your hospital or clinic, the mere existence of the virus in this country requires each and every healthcare provider to think proactively about response efforts. Showing smart, strategic and proactive communications on Ebola can transform fear into enduring trust and confidence within your community.