Four key communications take-aways from the Ebola outbreak

Like few other industries hospitals are constantly at risk for crises from patient safety, labor disputes, leadership and financial issues.

But in late September 2014, the U.S. saw its first Ebola patient – an event that was unimaginable even just six months earlier. The sudden emergence of the disease in patient Thomas Eric Duncan and in the subsequent infections of two of Duncan's nurses put the spotlight on Dallas and on Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, whether it was ready for it or not.

It's easy to Monday-morning quarterback how an organization handles a crisis, especially after such a frightening and high-exposure issue like Ebola. And to be fair, there were many compounding factors including a lack of guidance on prevention protocols, missed opportunities during the patient hand-off and unclear internal communications process that added to the confusion. However, while many hospitals feel they are well-prepared with their crisis communications plans, the Ebola outbreak tested communications teams across the industry and provided some valuable lessons we can apply for the future.

1. Respond quickly. Responding quickly and proactively is a core crisis communications best practice for a reason. It acknowledges awareness and responsibility for an issue which serves to calm fears. Equally important to fast communication though is making sure you have all the facts. And if you think you don't have all the information, say that and what you're doing to get the facts you need. When the hospital had to correct its statements about the electronic medical record being the reason Duncan was initially released, it eroded confidence in its ability to handle the outbreak.

2. Be specific. In the middle of a crisis, responding quickly often also means responding broadly. Resist that urge as much as possible. Instead, identify your audiences and what their key priorities are so that you can address them distinctly. For example, the local Dallas community was concerned about the disease's spread more generally within its population. While internally, hospital workers were concerned about what protective equipment and process they needed to use, which required a different response.

3. Communicate often. Time can pass either very slowly or very quickly, depending on which side of the communications flow you are on. For the patients and families who are anxiously waiting for more information, minutes can feel like hours. To mitigate this frustration or anxiety, set up a regular, frequent cycle of communications across all organizational channels to share the latest news even if the updates are incremental. The more frequently you can communicate the better.

4. Be human. Speaking on behalf of an organization or a system requires a certain level of formality but don't forget health care is about people. Remember to show that in the language you chose and tone of your communications. Warming up the tone of a statement or comments can go far in showing the empathy that is appropriate in incidents of patient harm.

So what can hospitals do to prepare for the unthinkable?

First develop a crisis communications plan before you need it. Identify the members of the communications team, processes, templates and key messages before you are faced with a crisis situation. Second, test and train your team and the plan.

In the same way that we do physical building evacuations, set aside time to go through potential crisis scenarios so that you can objectively evaluate how your team responded and adjust your process. Through intensive simulations like firebell that create an authentic-feeling of a crisis through traditional media outlets and social media, organizations can experience and react in real-time to an escalating incident. This experience helps test readiness, evaluate if an action plan and messaging works and show the gaps where new strategies can be applied to strengthen the team's response.

The reality is we can never be absolutely prepared for every situation. But, knowing that your plan creates an effective response process that your team can follow is well worth the effort if and when you do encounter a crisis.

Peter Duda, JD, MBA is an Executive Vice President in the New York office of Weber Shandwick and co-head of the agency's Global Crisis Group. He has counseled clients in a wide variety of industries on communications strategies relating to such complex and sensitive issues ranging from litigation and government investigations to corporate reputation management.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within these guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Becker's Hospital Review/Becker's Healthcare. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.

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