February Is Ethics Month
“Trust me, I’m a doctor” was an advertising slogan for Dr. Pepper® in 2009. Fictional doctors such as American basketball icon Julius Erving (aka Dr. J) and KISS rocker Gene Simmons (aka Dr. Love) served as campaign spokespersons for the fizzy favorite.
If a real doctor recommended a drink with nearly 10 teaspoons of sugar per serving, would you trust them with your health? I think we can all agree that credibility and trust are essential when it comes to health-related recommendations.
Unlike soda company executives and ad agencies, most newly minted doctors cite some form of the Hippocratic oath on graduation day. Named for the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, this medical oath of ethics is a promise to operate within moral and ethical boundaries, similar to the IABC Code of Ethics for professional communicators.
The COVID-19 pandemic put our trust in healthcare experts to the test, especially around vaccine safety and efficacy. Many of us developed COVID-19 protocols, change management plans, fact sheets, videos, and social media messaging for clients and employers, perhaps even for government agencies driving global campaigns. Others specializing in PR and crisis communications scrambled to assemble scenarios, talking points and game plans for an array of “what ifs.”
Trust is one of the most valuable assets for professional communicators to build, sustain and fiercely protect for their employers and for themselves. It is also a common thread in three key healthcare “pain points” that communicators will navigate in 2023, including staffing shortages, technology transitions and improving patient experience.
Healthcare Staffing Shortages
Last spring, Elsevier Health released its first “Clinician of the Future” global study, surveying 3,000 practicing doctors and nurses. Approximately 68% of respondents anticipate a shortage of doctors and 74% predict a shortage of nurses throughout the next decade. An October 2022 report by Definitive Healthcare revealed: “Since 2020, one in five healthcare workers quit their job.” Approximately 230,600 left in the last quarter of 2021. Most cited burnout as the reason.
According to a January 2023 article in The New York Times, California is the only state mandating nurse-to-patient care ratios. In New York City, roughly 7,000 nurses from Mount Sinai Hospital and Montefiore Medical Center gathered in January to form a picket line because of staffing shortages, low pay and unreasonable patient loads. The three-day strike ended once the crippled facilities conceded to the nurses’ demands.
Given that this is a global challenge, communication teams need to have comprehensive communication plans in place, including crisis communications, and a solid public relations program with several media-trained spokespersons. Internal communications must include multiple feedback options and frequent sharing about employee assistance programs and wellness benefits, as well as HR training to help supervisors recognize the signs of burnout. A transparent business strategy may reassure staff that leadership is listening, advocating and taking steps toward solutions. Employee recognition and appreciation also go a long way, especially when short-staffed.
One of many good things born from the pandemic is expanded healthcare technology, such as the broader availability of telehealth appointments. This is key for the changing demographics of the patient population. The 2022 Elsevier Health study disclosed that 83% of clinicians who responded to the study believe most of their patient population will be aging adults with age-related diseases. User-friendly telehealth options, age-appropriate communication channels, provider training, and targeted messaging are essential to serve this aging population.
As with most technology upgrades, gaps surfaced, including siloed software platforms. This creates challenges with HIPAA compliance and data accuracy, threatening privacy and eroding user trust. The lack of integrated platforms is an industrywide problem, creating frustration for patients, providers, insurers and everyone in between.
Users struggle with the accuracy of data between platforms. Administrators struggle to ensure that patient information remains secure throughout workflows that toggle databases. This is not a simple solution but is one that healthcare organizations and innovative technology companies are working hard to resolve. The communications professional plays a key role in these discussions and ongoing education for all stakeholders, including investors.
Another technological trend in healthcare is integrating artificial intelligence (AI) to lighten the load for staff. Chatbots, for example, can schedule appointments, provide referrals, pre-register patients and respond to simple health concerns. Chatbots also help with language barriers, allowing users to select a preferred language for real-time answers. Healthcare workers, insurers and other clinicians use such apps as Google Translate to avoid miscommunication. This creates an opportunity for communicators to educate users on both ends.
The use of robotics continues to evolve throughout the industry, aiding in remote surgeries, for instance, or completing janitorial tasks that previously required a live person. This requires costly, up-front investments but promises significant cost savings over time through reduced or repurposed headcount. Robotics make for great PR events!
COVID-19 also changed the face of public events, including tradeshows, a significant element of the healthcare industry. The same goes for medical conferences and continuing education. Most are now hybrid or remote events, requiring communicators to master online event facilitation, software and scripting. This puts more burden on hosting organizations to “wow” audiences with user-friendly conferencing technology as well as highly interactive content.
A technology trend that has not changed is the ever-present threat of cyberattacks. A healthy collaboration between communications and IT departments, with the guidance of cybersecurity experts, helps reduce the risk of a data breach. As we’ve seen, hackers love to kick an organization when it’s down. The impact on healthcare facilities is deadly and costly, with 2022 setting a “record year” for cyberattacks against U.S. healthcare organizations, according to a December 2022 article by Politico. Communication teams can cost or save millions for an organization based on their level of readiness for such an event.
More healthcare organizations are investing in advanced technology, IT security and integrated systems to retain patients and attract coveted healthcare professionals, industry partners and funding. Communicators have an opportunity to secure a seat at the planning table by mitigating risk through thoughtful and proactive preparation of strategic communications that address and respond to a diverse range of stakeholders and scenarios.
Creating a Better Patient Experience
The Healthcare Management Academy reports that 40% of patients surveyed are not loyal to a health system, with 80% jumping ship for more convenience. That’s a significant risk factor for many healthcare businesses.
Patient expectations in many countries are higher than ever before. Throughout the U.S., there is a growing interest in integrative medicine over traditional Western practices. There is also online access to medical information and patient test results, often before a provider has had a chance to review or discuss results with their patient. This opens doors to unlimited beneficiary education and health-related content that drives visitors to online platforms by targeting audiences with relevant wellness topics. Content can also be interactive, collecting valuable user data that drives communications planning. An effective content management system helps to update content and collect feedback.
Communicators can also educate multi-generational, multilingual users tasked with navigating new technology. Knowing your audience is essential when selecting channels, messaging and timing. Providing evidence-based research and supporting data is essential to get your C-suite on board. It also empowers professional communicators to bolster our status as trusted advisors.
Berlinger, Nancy, 'Communication with patients, families, and other caregivers: Why is this ethically important?' in Chin, Jacqueline, Nancy Berlinger, Michael C. Dunn, Michael K. Gusmano (eds.), A Singapore Bioethics Casebook, 2 vols (Singapore: National University of Singapore, 2017), http://www.bioethicscasebook.sg.
Kelly, J. (2022, April). New Survey Shows That Up To 47% Of U.S. Healthcare Workers Plan To Leave Their Positions By 2025. Forbes.
Sheridan-Gonzalez, J. (2022, January). Why nurses strike. New York State Nurses Association. https://www.nysna.org/why-nurses-strike#.Y8yHo-zMLME
Otterman, S., Goldstein, J., Gross, J. (2023, January 12). Nurse’s strike ends in New York city after hospitals agree to add nurses. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/12/nyregion/nurses-strike-ends-nyc.html
Popowitz, E., Bellemare, T., Tieche, M. (2022 October). Adressing the healthcare staffing shortage: A Definitive Healthcare report. Definitive Healthcare.
Tara Mogan Blom, MMC, ABC
Tara Mogan Blom, MMC, ABC, is a communications consultant specializing in healthcare communications. Tara is also a certified wellness coach, pursuing a graduate degree in holistic nutrition. Connect online at https://www.linkedin.com/in/taramoganblom.