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Emergency Preparedness & Communication: Lessons Learned From COVID-19

Unfortunately, it looks like our experience with COVID-19 will only get worse before it gets better. Although the total number of new daily cases of the novel coronavirus in the United States has slowly been declining over the past few weeks, some states have experienced significant upticks. We're likely to see more hotspots popping up as states continue to proceed with reopening plans, including in-person education, and people experience fatigue with wearing masks and social distancing restrictions. We're seeing this occurring in Europe, which is now in the midst of its second wave of the health crisis. Pair surging COVID-19 infections with the looming flu season, and this one-two punch — which some are calling a "nightmare" scenario — has the potential to overwhelm hospitals and lead to new shutdowns and the reduction of non-essential services. Even a best-case scenario is still likely to result in significant challenges and pressures for healthcare providers, which is why now is the time to take the steps necessary to strengthen your emergency preparedness.

One of the most significant aspects of emergency preparedness that requires increased attention before the nightmare hits is communication. Healthcare providers that successfully navigated the unchartered waters of COVID-19 placed a priority on ensuring effective communication with patients, staff, vendor partners, and, more broadly, the communities they served. And they did so by leveraging a range of tools, with a growing number of providers relying on texting to get timely messages to the people who needed to receive them.

The experiences from the first six-plus months of this pandemic have taught us a great deal about what must happen if provider organizations want to put themselves in a position to respond effectively to the challenges of the next six months and beyond. Here are four of the lessons learned from the health crisis that you can use to improve your organization's emergency communication preparedness.

1. Address emergency communication weaknesses sooner than later

The several weeks that followed the declaration of the pandemic and the issuing of restrictions and stay-at-home orders put emergency preparedness plans to the test. Many came up short. For those organizations that struggled with communication, they lacked the ability to inform patients, staff, and vendors effectively and efficiently about rapidly changing closure guidelines and safety rules. The mechanisms relied upon by such organizations to provide updates — such as phone, email, website, social media — were worthwhile, but often failed to get that information to a majority of targeted recipients in a timely fashion.

When an organization needs to get an urgent message out to a significant number of people fast and with a high degree of confidence that the intended audience will receive and process it, there's no better means than texting. It's a proven method for quickly reaching and successfully engaging with stakeholders. We say that the time to deploy texting is well before it is needed. If you're not already using a texting platform, the time to add this valuable communication mechanism is now.

2. Never assume an emergency message is received

When organizations were forced to shut down their operations, sometimes on relatively short notice, there was often a scramble to inform everyone affected — from patients who had their treatments postponed to staff members who were directed to stay home or still come in to the facility to vendors whose appointments were canceled. For organizations without text messaging, they relied upon the aforementioned mixed of emails, phone calls, and online posts.

Unfortunately, organizations were often left unsure about whether stakeholders received or saw this messaging. Phone calls — the mechanism typically leaned upon for urgent messages — are increasingly ignored these days, largely due to robocall fatigue. And there's no guarantee that a voicemail will be listened to any time soon, if at all. When stakeholders missed messages providing new instructions, they typically proceeded with their original plans of coming to the facility, only to learn once they arrived that the facility was closed or appointments and shifts were canceled. This was not only frustrating but also led to an increased risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus.

Two-way text messaging can help an organization dramatically reduce the likelihood that a message will be missed. Two-way texting allows recipients to respond to a message via text. If an organization wants to confirm that recipients received a message, they can ask the recipients to reply with a simple "yes" and the text messaging platform will record this confirmation. If any recipients fail to respond within a set amount of time (e.g., one hour), organizations can then reach out via phone and/or email. Considering more than 96% of Americans own a mobile phone of some kind, all of which can text, and research has shown that 98% of texts are read and 95% are read within just three minutes of being sent, the number of people who will require outreach via phone or email will be significantly lower.

If the information that needs to reach recipients is too long for a text or needs to be provided in a format other than text, organizations can easily include a hyperlink to this information in a text message — another benefit.

3. Be prepared for before, during, and after the emergency

Significant attention with emergency preparedness is paid to the initial response. What often receives less attention is what needs to happen during and after the emergency, as was the case with the pandemic. Organizations focused heavily on responding to the announcement of the pandemic and subsequent regulatory guidelines and recommendations, including stopping non-essential services and developing mechanisms to safely reduce the number of in-house staff to better support social distancing without harming care.

Once this work was accomplished, many organizations, like much of the country, took a wait-and-see approach to developments. Unfortunately, in many cases, this was lost time that could have been spent preparing for the efforts that would be required for a successful reopening and gradual resumption of operations. As states began to announce when restrictions would ease and organizations began receiving information about when they could expect to begin reopening their facilities or individual departments (e.g., outpatient surgery), some organizations found themselves rushing to get timely messaging out to stakeholders about what this meant and how they would be affected — critical aspects of any successful business continuity plan.

For patients, this information covered everything from when the date when the facility or department would reopen and how that would affect postponed treatments; what patients needed to do to reschedule appointments; changes in safety policies and procedures that patients and visitors would need to follow; and contact tracing surveys. For providers with a telehealth program, they worked to spread the word about the availability of such services.

For staff, information disseminated covered everything from scheduling of shifts; new policies and procedures; steps leadership was taking to better ensure safety; and availability of services to help staff manage their own response to the pandemic, including COVID-19 testing and mental health support. For vendors, messages typically spoke to rescheduling of appointments and changes to policies and procedures representatives would need to follow during on-site visits.

In the days and weeks that followed the initial reopening phase, what was understood about the novel coronavirus constantly evolved, affecting how organizations approached their response and modified their rules and guidelines. As this language changed, affected stakeholders needed to be informed. In many cases, this meant significant time spent on phone calls — sometimes multiple calls, if initial calls were missed — and emails that may or may not have been read.

But for those organizations already using a text messaging platform, getting frequently changing updates out to a majority of affected stakeholders proved simple and effective. Writing the message, selecting targeted recipients, and clicking send was all it took to inform recipients about how to reschedule appointments, masking requirements, a no-visitor policy, new pre-screening rules, and more. Texting platforms could confirm the delivery of the messages and two-way texting helped document when recipients acknowledged the message. Staff — already stressed and often at reduced capacity — had their communication responsibility workload greatly reduced, permitting more time to focus on other critical matters. The organizations themselves were able to more easily ramp back up operations and begin capturing sorely needed revenue.

As the possibilities of a second wave (or continued first wave, as some consider it) looms large, coupled with the flu season, organizations must need to strengthen their plan for how they intend to respond to a return of operational restrictions and the possibility of a second lockdown as well as identify what they can also do to further simplify and streamline reopening and resuming operations. Text messaging must be a part of this equation.

4. Don't overlook the value of staff support

The final emergency preparedness and communication lesson learned from COVID-19 that we'll cover is that the need to provide emotional support to staff becomes elevated during times of great stress, such as this pandemic. As important as it is to keep staff informed about changes in their work schedule, new rules, and other developments that affect operations, it is perhaps just as important to remind staff that their hard work and dedication during such an uncertain time does not go unnoticed.

To provide emotional and inspirational support to personnel, organizations are sending uplifting messages via text that are having a positive impact on mental health. One such organization is New Mexico's Lovelace Health System. It sent more than 46,000 text messages to its staff over a two-week stretch in March. While these messages covered a range of topics, including updates on changes to protocols, reminders about recommended safety practices, and information concerning the employee assistance program, Lovelace also sent texts that shared uplifting messages and inspirational quotes.

As Serena Pettes, vice president of marketing and business development for the health system notes, "Sending texts to our employees … during COVID-19 has been an easy, quick, and effective way to provide support, encouragement, and guidance during a challenging time." It can be easy to overlook something like showing support for staff when there is so much work to be done (often with reduced staff), but the benefits of a simple message of appreciation can make a significant difference in morale and productivity.

Strengthen Your Emergency Preparedness With Text Messaging

While communication is just single component of emergency preparedness, it's one of the most important. When an organization can communicate effectively and in a timely manner about what it needs staff, patients, and vendors to do in response to ever-changing and -evolving emergency developments, execution of emergency preparedness and business continuity plans becomes easier and more successful. Text messaging helps make this happen.

To learn about how to add Dialog Health text messaging to your organization, fill out the form here, email, or call (877) 666-1132.



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