3. Safe to Return


Over the summer months of 2020, many healthcare providers across the U.S. began to transition from a nearly one-track priority on testing and treating COVID-19 patients and dramatically scaled back operations and staffing, to safely re-opening select services that included scheduling patients for non-elective surgeries and other much-needed but delayed services

This decision was made after two things happened:

  • A decline in the number of COVID-19 inpatients
  • Loosening of community restrictions by local and state officials

Healthcare providers drafted new protocols and opened shuttered physician practices, clinics and services while reaching out to patients who postponed services in the early months of the pandemic. Driving this urgency to reopen was the tremendous pressure recoup some of the significant financial loss from halting services that provided much-needed revenue. But providers quickly learned getting patients to return wasn’t as easy as flipping on an “open for business” sign.

The challenge was this: After months of warning patients of the risks of COVID-19, the medical community needed to launch proactive communication and marketing campaigns to reassure people that it was indeed safe to physically seek and receive care. Back in April, over half of people we surveyed said they or someone in their home had delayed care due to the pandemic, and people didn’t feel particularly safe in medical settings (about a five on scale of 1-10). By August, neither of those numbers had moved much. Providers had their work cut out for them. And they were still dealing with high COVID-19 caseloads and building exhaustion among their teams. There was pressure from all sides.

Lessons learned

The most common communication themes as healthcare providers re-opened services included explaining the rationale behind the decision to resume select services, reassuring communities and addressing the risks of avoiding care. Again, these themes hold true to ongoing pandemic work today.

Explain the rationale

First, our clients needed to explain the rationale behind decision-making. Providers had to answer fundamental questions from internal and external audiences such as, “What’s changed? Why have you decided to reopen services now? Is it safe?” For most providers, the answers came with significant influence from state governments, which cited curve flattening and state and local governments’ lifting of community restrictions.

Partner up

Going it alone doesn’t work – collaboration facilitates success. Healthcare providers across the country realized early on that only by working with others would they succeed in battling the pandemic and hysteria both inside their walls and out. Instead, healthcare organizations worked closely with local agencies, as well as state and federal authorities at every stage of the epidemic. Successful providers developed consistent messaging with their partners (including some who in normal times were significant competitors and strong rivals). They launched joint campaigns, incorporated uniform science and data proof points, published joint opinion editorials and held joint press conferences. Through a coordinated effort, the rationale to re-open was supported by multiple agencies.

Provide reassurance

Healthcare providers also needed to reassure people about what was being done to protect and keep patients and staff safe. The best way to do that is through show and tell – emphasis on the show – demonstrating what efforts and changes were being done to that end – all showcased through videos, social media, facility signage and one-on-one communication with patients. It involved repeatedly conveying what the providers were doing as well as what they were asking patients, visitors and the community to do – before and after they arrived for an appointment.

Campaigns were developed around key themes: diligence with masking, hand washing and social distancing; extensive precautions providers were taking including sanitizing, facility modifications, checking-in from outside the building and evaluation and testing prior to entering; and new protocols to separate COVID patients and the staff caring for them from other patients and staff – just to name a few.

The lesson learned was that it’s not enough to say you’re keeping people safe. You have to show them –  repeatedly. It’s about an organization’s body language to reinforce the reality of the safety precautions that were taking place.

Address the risks

Avoiding care was a true risk for many patients. Not surprisingly, after months of being admonished to stay away from hospitals, people were scared to seek care and enter facilities. Healthcare providers smartly communicated that suffering from undiagnosed or untreated conditions put patients at risk.  Moreover, the public wanted to hear that message from providers themselves, proof that the messenger is as important as the message itself. (We’ve seen in our research that consumers consistently trust doctors and nurses above anyone regarding the pandemic.) Relying on and utilizing the trusted voice of in-house clinical experts was one of the most important lessons learned in communications this past year.

One more thing

Telehealth went from ‘nice-to-have’ to ‘gamechanger.’

Healthcare providers saw firsthand over the last year that telehealth is not only an effective form of healthcare, but necessary for patients requiring care and the survival of healthcare providers nationwide. When push came to shove, telehealth launched itself from therapy sessions and wellness check-ins to a revenue generating, patient satisfying machine. Fueled by the pandemic, we watched telehealth utilization skyrocket in our consumer research studies. By January 2021, telehealth utilization jumped to 53 percent  compared to 29 percent in April 2020, only a month into the pandemic. Importantly, of those who have used telehealth, most plan to continue using it to see doctors even after the COVID-19 pandemic is under control. While this is an exciting turning point for healthcare providers and consumers, there is still work to be done. More than half do not believe they can receive the same level of medical care with telehealth as with in-person care. Quality is king and targeted messaging efforts around efficacy will be important as we move forward.

Over the summer months of 2020, healthcare providers were not only truly tested on their ability to treat and care for COVID-19 patients but also to do the same for others needing medical attention in a safe environment. While providers had to do some things a little differently to ensure high-quality care, many organizations developed solutions through collaboration and innovation that one would have thought impossible for an industry that had been described as antiquated and slow to change. This acceleration is finally beginning to deliver on expectations from our patients, while providing important lessons to deliver in times of crisis in the future.

About the Author /

[email protected]

Letitia Fecher is a seasoned communications strategist with expertise in messaging, branding and reputation management. Fecher has played key roles in steering clients through mergers and integration; launching physician, employee and community engagement initiatives; spearheading public perception campaigns and creating branding and image strategies. She brings more than 15 years of marketing and strategic communications experience in the healthcare industry to our firm, including seven years of work as an in-hospital marketing and communications professional. Prior to joining Jarrard Inc. in 2014, Fecher led the marketing and communications for United Allergy Services, an investor-backed, healthcare services start-up. There, she implemented an organization-wide employee engagement effort, oversaw relationship and business development with provider organizations and physician practices, and launched the company’s brand, marketing and communications strategy. Additionally, she served as director of marketing for a Tenet-owned hospital and facilities in Atlanta; and marketing and customer relationship manager for a Catholic Health Partners nine-hospital system (now Mercy Health) in Knoxville, Tenn.