On the Frontlines of Life and Death: Healthcare Communications
September 23, 2020
By PRSA-SV Board Member Camelia Gendreau

Healthcare communicators have always worked on the front lines of life and death. Now in the midst of the pandemic and other recent events, healthcare issues are a central part of everyone’s lives. On PRSA-SV’s last #FridayForum,  Amy Flood (SVP, Public Affairs, Gilead Sciences), Brent Andrew (Chief Communications Officer, Zuckerberg SF General Hospital) and Lori Rodney (SVP, Ruder Finn) discussed the challenges of internal, external and patient communication during COVID. They told us how their communications roles have changed as they navigate issues at the intersection of healthcare, civil unrest, climate change — and how they keep sane while doing it all. Several themes emerged from a wide-ranging and engaging conversation: 

The pandemic upended the status quo and blurred the lines 

All three speakers agreed COVID-19 demanded a pivot, but as healthcare communicators, stopping work entirely was not an option. Patients and frontline workers depend on them. Lines blurred between work and home, and between internal and external communications. At a large, safety-net hospital like SF General, Brent said the line between how they communicate with the public and how they communicate with staff has been obliterated. This is due in part because the staff is part of the general public and they have the same challenges as everyone: they are concerned about spreading the contagion, about taking public transportation, about childcare. 

Disparities in the American medical, economic and housing systems are more blatant 

Many employees don’t get paid if they don’t show up to work. So they come to work and are more likely to spread the contagion. Communities of color who often live in multi-generational, very dense housing situations are more likely to be exposed. In San Francisco alone, over 50% of the people affected by COVID-19 are from the LatinX community, and over 60% in California overall. So it’s vital that healthcare messages reach these populations where they are, in the channels they are present, in their language of choice. 

But, as Lori pointed out, there is no amount of communication that can fix the disparities until the systemic issues are addressed. Studies show that patients of color who walk into a doctor’s office are less likely to receive quality treatment. Which makes them less likely to trust the medical system. That, in turn, leads to fewer doctor visits and worse health outcomes. Contributing to the disparities in health outcomes across racial lines is the fact that they are also severely under-represented in the medical community.

Building trust and transparency amid rampant misinformation and uncertainty 

“I always counsel my clients to build trust before they need it,” Lori said. These days she said it’s like building the plane as we fly it. Brent agreed that, “We live in a “bizarre era of public communications.” Public institutions that have worked to built trust over a long period of time, and even basic science, are being questioned and put under scrutiny with a politicized lens. Brent described how SF General is working to pre-empt attempts to politicize certain issues like mass shootings by gun rights organizations by proactively talking about these incidents in terms of “mass shootings” and not just “victims of guns violence.” This sets a broader context and provides stats and figures that present scientific facts. 

Amy spoke about the necessity of centering oneself on what is true, and focusing our energy on things that we can fix, the people who are willing and open to hearing what is true, and letting everything else go. Gilead has been the subject of many conspiracy theories, especially around its clinical trials. She said that’s hard on the scientists working on these treatments and drugs. Amy added that while the pharmaceutical industry has had reputational challenges, she hopes this crisis will motivate them to create a new precedent for being collaborative.

Return to Normalcy

One of the most sobering discussions coming out of this #FridayForum was about the prediction by Dr. Anthony Fauci that life may not return to normal until the end of 2021. With so many people hoping that everything will change when 2020 ends and the new year begins, healthcare communicators will continue to have their hands full. We are grateful for the help of these professional communicators as they continue to face daunting communications challenges for the greater good.

  • Previous Post
    The State of Communications 2020
  • Next Post
    Employee Communications in a Year Marked by Global Upheaval