How health systems can combat the COVID-19 'infodemic' — 4 insights

For health systems nationwide, COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of clear communication to patients and other stakeholders throughout the community. Over the last two years, being a public health authority is a role many healthcare organizations have grown into.

During an April webinar hosted by Becker's Hospital Review and sponsored by Elsevier’s ClinicalKey, five healthcare leaders discussed how their organizations have addressed misinformation during the pandemic:

  • Louise Chang, MD, global vice president, clinical solutions content strategy and partnerships, Elsevier
  • Cheng-Kai Kao, MD, associate chief medical information officer, University of Chicago Medicine
  • David Rottinghaus, MD, chief medical officer, Butler (Pa.) Health System
  • Amit Vashist, MD, senior vice president and chief clinical officer, Ballad Health in Johnson City, Tenn.
  • Brook Watts, MD, senior vice president for quality and chief medical officer, community and public health, The MetroHealth System in Cleveland

Four insights:

1. When it comes to scientific information, messaging must be tailored to different audiences. COVID-19 underscored that one message will never be appropriate for everyone. "What we realized is that we really need to think about how we tailor communication," Dr. Watts said. "We've always known that we have to do this, but the pandemic showed us with more granularity."

Part of tailoring messages for patients depends on their goals for care. "We had to become more comfortable discussing questions like what's your risk assessment, how do you want to live and what can you do to achieve more wellness and avoid getting sick?" Dr. Rottinghaus said. "It all goes back to knowing where people are starting from and what their opinions are."

2. To address patient misinformation, clinicians need current and actionable data. The University of Chicago Medicine did a lot of work internally to develop a consensus position about COVID-19, so that clinicians could share a unified, clear message with patients. "We leveraged different methods to get information to our providers, including clinical decision support," Dr. Kao said. "Our integrated clinical pathway program is embedded in the EHR and serves as a central source of truth. The clinical pathway always has the latest evidence. Some of that comes from content providers and some comes from our operations."

3. Content providers cut through the noise in systematic ways to combat misinformation. Elsevier focuses on understanding its users, so it can support the messaging that happens at the front lines of healthcare. "First and foremost, we identify reliable and relevant information," Dr. Chang said. "We have dedicated teams that conduct surveillance of the literature on an ongoing basis. They make recommendations about which content to curate and to make available on platforms. Our goal is to surface information in actionable ways."

4. Health systems are also working proactively to educate the community. During the pandemic, healthcare leaders partnered with institutions like state, county and city department of health, Veterans Affairs and local medical schools to address common sources of misinformation. Different organizations used different approaches to information sharing. Ballad Health, for example, formed a COVID-19 treatment panel to speed the process of disseminating the right information.

Healthcare experts agree that the communications lessons learned during COVID-19 must not be forgotten. "Now is the time to start developing templates for our communications during the next pandemic," Dr. Vashist said. "We must use the COVID-19 experience as a starting point. It's not a question of whether another pandemic will happen; it's a question of when it will happen."

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