Thought Leadership

The Challenges for Health Care Communicators as a New Normal Emerges From the COVID-19 Crisis

As hospitals and health care services gradually reopen in the coming weeks and months, communications and PR professionals will be helping patients, caregivers and staff adjust to the new normal after COVID-19.

But many uncertainties about coronavirus remain, making the job especially challenging for communicators who need to plan and execute strategies to encourage patients to return for care, and to help their organizations regain financial health by filling thousands of empty hospital beds and medical offices.

On May 14, several members of the PRSA Health Academy executive committee met virtually to discuss concerns and share ideas. Among the themes that emerged from the meeting were how to bring patients back for emergency treatments, surgeries, elective procedures, screenings, outpatient therapies and office visits.

The committee members also discussed how to support, schedule and maintain the safety of their already overworked communications teams when hospitals and medical offices reopen. Another theme that emerged from the meeting was how to recognize clinical staffs that have courageously cared for COVID-19 patients — without conveying the impression that hospitals are risky places where patients might contract the virus.

Making patients feel safe

Hospitals are taking steps to ensure the safety of patients as medical facilities and services begin to reopen. Those steps include physically separating suspected COVID-19 patients from the general patient population, expanding practices for cleaning and disinfection, and screening patients before they arrive for appointments.

Still, it’s understandable that many people may be reluctant to visit hospitals after seeing media coverage of COVID-19’s devastating toll. For communicators, the challenge is to help people feel comfortable about returning to their doctors and hospital services.

Although the coronavirus has affected different parts of the country in different ways, hospital systems across the nation are launching communications campaigns to bring patients back. New Jersey was the second hardest-hit COVID-19 area, after New York City. For many weeks, hospitals in the region had to focus their resources on treating an unrelenting arrival of seriously ill coronavirus patients. Elective surgeries were canceled; outpatient appointments and diagnostic services were put on hold.

Dennis Wilson, Jr., vice president of strategic marketing, northern region, for RWJBarnabas Health, a network of health care providers in New Jersey, said the system is beginning to reopen services in keeping with the governor’s executive order, as well as public health guidance and regulatory policies. 

The health system has launched a comprehensive “Welcome Back” campaign to let patients know that they can safely return for care. It includes TV and radio spots, print ads, billboards, targeted digital ads, social media posts and email messages. In addition, the team developed a website landing page as a repository for information from its communications campaign.

 “We will need to consistently communicate to help all of our service lines build back volume,” Wilson said.

Highlighting the positive experiences

Even at hospitals in parts of the country less hard-hit than New Jersey, many began to notice a new trend. Patients who suffered symptoms of medical emergencies such as heart attacks and strokes decided not to call 911 or rush to hospital emergency rooms, for fear they would contract COVID-19.

Broward Health, a system of hospitals in South Florida, is among those that have seen significant reductions in patients coming to its hospitals, especially for cardiovascular emergencies.

“The general public became terrorized by media stories about the pandemic,” said Jennifer Smith, APR, Broward Health’s associate vice president of corporate communications.

“In April, when the American Heart Association and EMS agencies announced a huge drop in calls and admissions for heart attack and stroke around the country, we informed our patients and the community about the importance of seeking emergency help immediately,” she said.

The theme they promoted in media stories and on the organization’s digital channels was: “Don’t let the pandemic stop you from getting the care that you need.”

Elective cases resumed on May 4 at Broward Health, Smith said. The hospital system recently launched a wide-ranging “Being Healthy Starts Here” campaign, which stresses that regardless of the care a patient needs — whether it’s for cancer, cardiovascular conditions, orthopedics, etc. — people should not delay visits to physicians and hospitals.

Smith said a key component of the campaign is generating earned media. The campaign also includes TV spots and messages distributed through government-relations and community-affairs channels.

At Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, marketing and communications manager Jason Carlton, APR, said their campaign, called “Always Here for You” includes a 60-second TV spot that communicates that patients should not wait to seek care and describes how its hospitals are keeping patients safe.

“We are also sharing stories in the media and on social media channels, highlighting the positive experiences of patients who are seeking care at our hospitals,” said Carlton.

Intermountain Healthcare also launched a Facebook campaign that, at first, had a more general message. Now, they are evaluating more focused messages that target specific areas like births, heart attacks and strokes.

Meanwhile, virtual visits to the health care system via telemedicine have increased exponentially, from 100 a month pre-COVID-19 to nearly 15,000 during each week in April, he said.

Taking care of communications staff

In the May 14 discussion, PRSA Health Academy leaders also expressed concern for their employees, most of whom had been working 24/7 throughout March and April — and when not working, they had remained on-call for immediate communication needs.

“The work has been intense, and burnout is a real concern,” Smith said. “We will need to encourage people to take some days off.”

She pointed out that childcare will be a major issue for parents who start returning to the office since schools are closed for the rest of the year and it’s uncertain when daycare and summer camps will reopen.

Wilson from RWJBarnabas Health agreed and said when life returns to the “new” normal, he doesn’t anticipate the work for his team to slow down.

At Intermountain, several members of the marketing and communications team have been working around the clock in recent weeks, Carlton said. They’ve been coordinating communications regarding wide-ranging topics including surge planning, medical teams who were deployed to New York City to assist in hospitals, and the ever-changing updates from local and national government leaders.

The hospital system’s media team has also been busy arranging more than 30 interviews per week with local, regional and national media, and implementing virtual press conferences to share important messages.

Honoring health care workers

As hard as communicators have worked since the coronavirus emerged as a worldwide pandemic, all agreed that the courageous doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals who have cared for COVID-19 patients and kept hospitals running should continue to be recognized. They include the clinical staffs who have volunteered to travel and work in the country’s hardest-hit areas.

However, while recent communications honoring nurses and doctors for their heroism have shown them in full personal protective equipment, there’s new thinking that those images might contradict the external message that hospitals are safe places to receive care. So, hospital communicators are rethinking the images they will show in magazines and other materials, even when those articles are about COVID-19.


Ellen Beth Levitt is a member of PRSA’s Health Academy Executive Committee, and was Health Academy chair in 2016. Her 25-year career in health-care communications has included leadership roles at three academic medical centers. She is currently director of public relations at Global Medical Response and can be reached at eblevitt@gmail.com.

Photo credit: pop tika

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Ellen Beth Levitt

1 Comment

  • As a physician on the frontlines of hospital care of patients I would like to recognize the complex thinking that goes into messaging during a pandemic. An important point that should be communicated to the public is that tracing shows that nearly all of the healthcare workers who become COVID positive, have contracted the illness through family or socially and NOT in the hospital setting. In fact because hospitals are tightly engaged in the use of PPE, people that come seeking medical care are probably safer getting their care in the hospital than any other way. I appreciate opening up this dialogue and appreciate the intricate need of public relations for the public’s health.

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