The Marketer’s Imperative: Addressing Fear of Returning to Medical Facilities

June 18, 2020

// By Dan Dunlop //

Dan DunlopDuring the pandemic, provider organizations have done a great job communicating with their communities about the need for people to stay home and stay safe. Unfortunately, the public has come to believe that hospitals and medical facilities are no longer safe places. As consumers have begun to take this pandemic more seriously, national research has shown that Americans’ concern about visiting a health care facility has grown significantly. In March, roughly 58 percent of Americans surveyed had safety concerns related to visiting a medical facility. By April, that number had increased to 72 percent (NRC Health, April 2020).

With this fear looming, what’s going to happen now that we’ve started trying to encourage people to return to our hospitals and outpatient facilities for more routine care? How is that going to be received? Needless to say, it is going to be a challenge to bring people back to our hospitals and clinics.

The Challenge

As we emerge from this pandemic, our hospitals will need their marketing teams to help drive patient volume to overcome the dire financial challenges they are facing, and also make sure the public gets the crucial health care services we know they need.

With that in mind, there is a clear imperative for health care marketers and communicators to develop content and messaging that alleviate consumers’ fears about returning to health care facilities. As a result of the pandemic, people are currently avoiding visiting medical facilities and, in many cases, delaying necessary care. They are putting themselves at risk — and when they do opt to come to the emergency room, their health has significantly declined.

According to numerous reports, nationally there was a striking decrease in patients visiting emergency rooms for serious non-COVID-19 issues, such as heart attack and stroke, during the pandemic. Medscape Medical News reports that “stroke specialists are seeing a precipitous drop in the number of acute strokes at their institutions.” (April 8, 2020)

“The door is open for us to educate and inform people within our communities. The process begins by recognizing that our audiences have likely been changed by this experience.”

Dan Dunlop


The good news is that national surveys also demonstrate that consumers are hungry for information about the pandemic and what’s next, and they see health care providers as a trusted source. They welcome regular communication from their local health care provider. So the door is open for us to educate and inform people within our communities. The process begins by recognizing that our audiences have likely been changed by this experience.

Alan Shoebridge, director of marketing and communication at Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System

Alan Shoebridge, director of marketing and communication, Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System

“The first thing we need to do is acknowledge that the lives of our patients have really changed,” says Alan Shoebridge, director of marketing and communication at Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System. “For some, it might just be a general fear of getting care; but for others, it might be a personal loss of a friend or family member. In other cases, it might be loss of a job or health insurance. Almost every person will have been affected in some way that will make encouraging them to get care much more difficult now than it was before COVID-19.”

Shoebridge says, “I think we really need to focus on understanding the extent of the impact in our local communities and be prepared for sustained marketing efforts that mirror how long recovery takes in terms of both economic and public health measures.”

Meeting the Challenge

Right now, if they’re not doing it already, provider organizations should be developing content and messaging that does two things:

  1. Informs consumers of all the steps you are taking to keep patients (and your employees) safe. People need to know that hospitals are not COVID-19 zones. Many have the impression that COVID-19 patients on gurneys are lining the halls of hospitals. We need to show them photos and videos and publish interviews that help them understand that our health care facilities are clean and safe. We should explain to them exactly how COVID-19 patients are treated and intentionally kept separate from the rest of the hospital — and let them see how hard your team works every day to maintain a safe environment.
  2. Paints the picture of your vision of the “new normal” and the steps your organization is taking to create that reality. Let patients know what they can expect when they come back to your facilities. Focus on specific facilities like your Women’s Center, Pediatric Specialty Center, Diagnostic Center, or Primary Care Practices. How will they be protected?
    • What steps are you taking to provide refresher safety training for your employees?
    • To what extent are you screening employees daily for symptoms of COVID-19, or testing employees for the virus?
    • Will waiting rooms be different and allow for social distancing?
    • What additional steps are you taking to avoid patient-to-patient contact?
    • Will patients be expected to wear face masks? Will masks be provided?
    • What screening questions will you ask patients over the phone prior to their appointment?
    • Will facilities and equipment be sanitized between patients?
    • Will patients wait in their vehicles and receive a text when they should enter the facility?
    • Will you limit the presence of visitors in your facilities or people present at medical appointments?
    • Will you allow patients to call or Facetime a support person during their appointment?
    • Will patient check-in be handled over the phone with patients called in for an appointment once the previous patient is gone and sanitizing is complete?
    • Will patients be greeted at the door by an employee taking temperatures, offering hand sanitizer, and ensuring that patients are wearing appropriate masks?
    • Will you extend hours at your clinics and will you limit the volume of patients at any one time to limit congestion? How do you intend to stagger patients?
    • Will there be a contactless payment system for patients?
    • Will you remove magazines, brochures, and other nonessential materials from your lobby to limit the spread of germs?
    • What can patients do in advance of the appointment to limit time in the practice? Will patients be able to complete pre-visit paperwork online prior to the appointment?
    • Will you reach out to patients prior to their appointment to familiarize them with new safety procedures?

“You might find that surgical volume comes back quickly, but primary care volume in your healthcare system is lagging. Perhaps you never had to market primary care before COVID-19, but now you will.”

Alan Shoebridge

Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System

These are the things we need to talk about right now as we paint the picture of that new reality. Additionally, if you have telehealth options for patients, you’ll want to offer those as an option for patients, when appropriate. If you’ve got primary care facilities, outpatient clinics, laboratory services, diagnostic facilities, and surgery centers that are separate and apart from your main hospital, you’ll want to share that information. We also need to remind patients about the importance of routine diagnostic tests like mammograms.

Easing Fear and Anxiety a Top Priority

In our daily conversations with health care marketers and strategists around the country, nearly everyone agrees that overcoming fear will continue to be one of the most important challenges facing health care organizations. Our point is that we need to start laying this foundation now by producing and disseminating solid content and messaging that help ease the fear and anxiety felt by our communities. We need to provide consumers with information that lets them know that their risk is minimal and that we are doing everything we can to minimize that risk. And we need to start now with a willingness to adapt as circumstances evolve.

“A key to success, once you set your business and marketing priorities, will be flexibility,” Shoebridge says. “You might find that surgical volume comes back quickly, but primary care volume in your health care system is lagging. Perhaps you never had to market primary care before COVID-19, but now you will. You will need to be nimble, now more than ever before. Luckily, we’ve seen how quickly health care — and healthcare marketers — can adjust when we have a crisis to address. We can do the same with this situation.”

Dan Dunlop is president and CEO of Jennings, an advertising and brand development agency based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Dunlop is an author, health care marketer, blogger, and frequent speaker at national and regional conferences. He is a member of the eHealthcare Strategy & Trends Editorial Advisory Board. You can find him on Twitter at @dandunlop or email him at