How doctors should handle crisis communication during COVID-19

June 26, 2020

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Gretchyn Bailey: Hi, everybody, I am here with Mike McDougall. He is president of McDougall Communications in Rochester, NY. And Mike has quite a bit of experience in helping people communicate, especially during a crisis.

So, Mike, can you tell me a little bit about crisis communication? What is it? And when do people use it?

McDougall: Sure, Gretchyn. Well, thanks. Crisis communication, in so many ways, is like communicating every day, except you are forced to do so in the midst of an emergency of some type. Usually, you are doing that under pressure. You are doing it under some sort of time constraint. And usually, the situation is not positive.

So, you take that into account because you need to communicate differently with your audiences. And also, you need to have different expectations for yourself and your staff when you are communicating, at that point.

Bailey: So, how would you suggest that doctors and medical professionals communicate with their patients now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether they are on lockdown, whether they are seeing only emergency patients, or whether they are seeing patients for regular follow-up care?

McDougall: That is a great question. I think there are a few different tips we could look toward. One is, you do need to communicate. There is a tendency in the midst of a crisis to shut down and stop communicating with those people who need to hear from you.

I heard a story just yesterday, from a contact lens wearer, who had concerns about wearing lenses during the pandemic. She told me, “I’m afraid to contact my provider because they are open for emergency services only. I don’t want to bother them.” So, there is that sense of, they will come to me if they have a question. They may not. They respect you too much, especially if you are providing emergency-only services.

So, it is your obligation to reach out to them. Make sure they are getting the information they need right now. And in fact, that is going to build even more trust in your practice, in your team for when we are through this pandemic, as well. So that is one major tip.

The second is to state what you know, at this time, right? The science is changing fast. The literature is shifting.

Things will change. Keep abreast of it, but don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Any time you make a prediction in a crisis, it is probably going to be challenged. If not 3 weeks from now, tomorrow, things are moving so fast.

So, what you can say is, “Based on what we know right now, here is my best guidance.” My best advice to you, as a patient, but again, try not to get too far ahead. You are not Nostradamus and those who choose to try to play fortune teller regret it down the road.

Bailey: Should this be the doctor communicating with patients? Should it be staff? Can you delegate it? Is it a mix, or does it not really matter?

McDougall: Well, I think it is what your patients are more comfortable with. In a time of crisis, usually, you look for a more senior opinion, to give them reassurance. But if your practice typically communicates with your patients through staff, I wouldn't change that.

In fact, that could signal that something is wrong, right? Suddenly, it is elevating it to the doctor to the partner in the practice. Hey, what is happening here? I think it is good to see them but don’t completely delegate up or down. If anything, you want to provide some sense of normalcy, as well.

And make sure your staff is still involved. They are going to be there when this pandemic ends, we hope, and you want to make sure that personal trust and connection remains.

Bailey: What about frequency? Should you stick with a regular cadence? For example, if you send out a monthly email newsletter to your patients, should you continue to do that? Or should you send something more frequently in times like this, during this pandemic, to keep your patients up to speed on what is going on?

McDougall: It is a great question. It is going to be a bit subjective. One, if you do have a current cadence, stick with it. Because I think that, again, will provide some degree of normalcy to your patient base who is used to hearing from you. And everything is not COVID-19 related right now, so they still benefit from your counsel and advice as you would normally give it. Too though, I would caution against over communicating.

Bailey: Right.

McDougall: I think all of us have received emails from every single brand we have interacted with in the past 35 years who have suddenly found my email address and told me how much they value my service or my business, I should say. So be cautious.

But don’t disappear from their life suddenly and then pop back up. They don’t need to hear from you once a day. If you do want to keep a rhythm up that is more frequent than say, email communications, for those practices that have social media accounts, that is a great way to do it.

Bailey: That is great advice. Do you have any final tips to offer to medical professionals who are seeing patients out there and really don’t know how to handle crisis communications?

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McDougall: Sure. I think one thing is to make sure your staff understands the rules of the road right now. That is, your partners and the rest of your team. I know there has been a drive toward more telemedicine. Stick within that framework.

You need to be very careful, especially when you are communicating on social media, that you are not dispensing medical advice to the masses over social. You can get yourself in a world of hurt and create other crises you were not expecting. So, have very clear parameters on what you can and cannot do when you are online communicating.

And more than anything else, again, reassure your patients and let them know you are going to be there for them now, and when they come back.

Bailey: That is really great advice, Mike. Thanks so much for sharing some of those tips for these professionals who really don’t know what to do when something like this hits. They don’t want to give out too much information, they don’t want to give out not enough, as you said. So, this is really helpful. Thanks so much for joining us today.

McDougall: You are very welcome. Thanks, Gretchyn.