Physician viewpoint: 5 ways to streamline email communications during a crisis

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New York City-based Columbia University applied a crisis resource management protocol to help staff adapt to a flood of email communications across its health system at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a June 25 op-ed for Harvard Business Review, four Columbia University physicians described how they used CRM principles, or a method of managing teamwork during a medical emergency, to mitigate the risk that "important information would get lost, stalled, or fail to reach the right people" due to the large volume of expanding email threads.

Here are five ways to integrate CRM communication guidelines to manage email communication during a crisis, according to report authors Marie-Laure Romney, MD, Nicholas Gavin, MD, Bernard Change, MD, and David Kessler, MD.  

1. Assign someone to summarize emails into daily update. Instead of clinicians and staff having to sort through numerous emails every day from various departments, Columbia University designated a specific person to comb through daily emails and craft a single, digestible email update sent out to all staff at the same time each day.

2. Be direct and provide timelines to close the loop on assignments. When sending emails during a crisis, include specific timelines and instructions on how to report back once the action or task is complete. Consider creating a code for email subject lines so the staff knows when an action is requested.

3. Ask for clarification when added to a long email thread. Rather than spending too much time trying to decipher a long email chain, once you are copied, reply back and ask the sender if they can clarify why you have been added and what your task is.

4. Adopt a situation, background, assessment and recommendation (SBAR) technique. When sending an email, explicitly state who you want to hear from and who you don't. Using the SBAR format in emails will also help keep communication clear and focused on outcomes when conversing with other departments.

5. Create a comfortable atmosphere for employees to speak up. Because email can be a challenging form of communication for conveying tone, some people may feel less inclined to speak up about concerns or problems. Recognizing this at the outset and telling the crisis team that email is a safe space to share ideas and concerns will help build open information exchange.

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