News from the Front: Health Care Shifts into High Gear to Address the Coronavirus

March 20, 2020

// By Jane Weber Brubaker //

Well before cases of COVID-19 began to spike in the U.S., health care organizations were watching the response to the pandemic unfold worldwide and preparing for the worst-case scenario. Communications to myriad stakeholders have been and are being created, coordinated, and standardized across multiple channels. Accurate, up-to-date information is essential for all of us.

To offer our full support, we reached out to the editorial advisory boards of both Strategic Health Care Marketing and eHealthcare Strategy & Trends — some of the top strategists, marketers, and thought leaders in the industry — and asked them to share their perspectives. Here, we give you the highlights. It is our sincere hope that this information will provide your organizations with examples to guide your efforts and help you manage during this crisis.

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Activating the Incident Command Center

Hospital Incident Command Centers (HICS) offer standardized protocols for dealing with emergencies. The benefit is that the planning and structure for communications is established before a crisis happens and can be activated as needed. The California Emergency Medical Service Authority says, “HICS is an incident management system based on principles of the Incident Command System (ICS), which assists hospitals and health care organizations in improving their emergency management planning, response, and recovery capabilities for unplanned and planned events.”

Ed Rafalski, Chief Strategy & Marketing Officer, BayCare Health

“On the strategy front, we activated our [hospital] incident command structure (HICS) two weeks ago. As the CSO I’m serving as the planning group lead in HICS. HICS has offered a nice structure for effective communication. The community is looking to us as healthcare experts working on the front lines with the most current and up to date information.”

E. Preston Gee, Vice President, Strategic Marketing, CHRISTUS Health

“We are implementing communication and operational tactics including daily monitoring via a virtual command center of the situation in each of our ministries (hospitals) in America and Latin America.”

Ross K. Goldberg is president of Kevin/Ross Public RelationsRoss Goldberg, President & Founder, Kevin/Ross Public Relations

“We represent a hospital in northern Oregon directly across the Columbia River from Washington. The hospital is obviously on very high alert and we have been working with their CEO, chief medical officer, public information officer, and Incident Command daily (hourly really) on internal and external messaging with all stakeholders. The communication needs and challenges are enormous.”

Directing Patients to the Appropriate Setting, Test Locations

The sheer number of patients who need information is staggering — and growing exponentially. All available tools and resources are being deployed.

Ed Rafalski, Chief Strategy & Marketing Officer, BayCare Health

“Our current work has been focused on developing predictive analytics reflective of all relevant health system data, for example, Google chatter as an indicator of the worried well, incidence demand, and capacity management. We are leveraging Tableau and mapping GIS for hotspotting. Current example is using it to determine where we will deploy our bus fleet for pop-up mobile testing. We are adding drive by testing locations throughout the community.”

E. Preston Gee, Vice President, Strategic Marketing, CHRISTUS Health

“We are evaluating website technology and response for triaging consumers/patients online. We are implementing drive-through testing for those who are concerned/symptomatic.”

Linda MacCracken, senior principal at Accenture

Linda MacCracken, Senior Principal, Customer Engagement, Accenture Health

“There is huge demand for health systems to be proactive, directing patients to urgent care, ED, primary care. There is an enormous surge coming and it has to be channeled to the right locations. Social listening to understand the priorities is essential.”

Ben Dillon, Chief Strategy Officer, Geonetric

“We should be sharing information about how and when to access the care system in the moment. This may be updating Google My Business pages with information on a facility by facility level. What’s open? Have hours changed? Should people be using the system differently than usual? Are there special options set up for screening for coronavirus? This includes encouraging the use of evisit and telehealth options to keep some patients out of the facilities.”

Diverting Patients to Virtual Visits or Virtual Care

Telemedicine has been growing as a way to expand access. Health systems are now accelerating use of this channel to manage patients before they inundate the ED.

Ed Rafalski, Chief Strategy & Marketing Officer, BayCare Health

“We have been pushing telemedicine to decompress our care locations, such as EDs, from ‘worried well’ surges. Telemedicine wait times have gone up from seven minutes on Thursday last week, to 20 minutes on Friday to 40 minutes today [Monday 3/16]. We trust that RN phone triage and drive-by testing going live this week will be an effective alternative channel for our patients.”

Health System Information Hubs

Health systems are creating dedicated coronavirus web content hubs and offering guided information via chatbots.

Don Stanziano, chief marketing officer for Geisinger

Don Stanziano, Chief Marketing Officer, Geisinger

“Here’s a link on our website for the public that compiles our public-facing work to date: The most interesting piece is the “bot” we added to the page to provide quick answers and easy access to information.”

NYU Langone/SiriusXM

“SiriusXM, in conjunction with NYU Langone Health, launched a special 24/7 channel dedicated to providing the public with the latest information on the coronavirus outbreak.” [from blog site]

Impact of Social Isolation on Mental Health

As we all practice social distancing, there is an emotional cost that must be factored in. As Susan Dubuque of ndp says, “This sounds like a minor issue when people’s lives are at stake, but it really isn’t.”

Susan Dubuque, principal at NDP Agency

Susan Dubuque, Principal, Neathawk Dubuque & Packett (ndp)

“The long-term/post-acute facilities have been hit particularly hard by this health crisis. From a purely communications perspective, one of the biggest issues our clients are facing is how to maintain contact between patients/residents and family members during lock down periods. Staffs are stressed and strained to maintain patients in the room, deal with increased cleaning and infection control matters — and then on top of it, patients are as stressed by lack of human/family contact as they are the threat of the disease.”

Howard Gershon

Howard Gershon, Principal, New Heights Group

“Another dimension of this is the impact on the mentally ill — both the fact that people who already suffer from high levels of anxiety are experiencing escalated levels and those who usually benefit from support group activities are being isolated from peers and therapists.”

Additional Resources/Examples

As the coronavirus situation was accelerating, we reached out to BJC HealthCare to add more information to an article we were working on about its internal communications program. It already had extensive information about COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic is like nothing we’ve seen in our lifetimes. It has been like a tsunami, moving inexorably closer until it finally hit. The pandemic has eclipsed all other priorities of health care organizations, bracing for the possibility of an overwhelming surge of patients sick with the virus. For the duration, we will do our best to support the industry with as much actionable information as possible.

To all health care workers: our thoughts and prayers are with you!

To hear more from top industry leaders, check out the free recording of our recent webinar:

COVID-19: Up to the Minute Learnings from Industry Experts on the Front Lines of the Coronavirus Pandemic

Jane Weber Brubaker is executive editor of Plain-English Health Care, a division of Plain-English Media. She directs editorial content for eHealthcare Strategy & Trends and Strategic Health Care Marketing, and serves as chair of the eHealthcare Leadership Awards. Email her at