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Communicating with patients: Stick with the tried and true

March 12th, 2014

by Nancy Cawley Jean

Over the years, the way we communicate with patients has changed drastically. I remember the days when, working for a health plan, we would coordinate postal mailings. Then email came along and then text messaging. And of course, there's always been traditional media outlets--television, newspaper and radio.

We've all seen the statistics about how many people are on social media: Seventy-three percent of adults online use a social network and 42 percent use multiple networks. On top of that, reports show at least 50 percent of people get their national and international news from the Internet.

Folks in communications and marketing say we have to reach out to people where they are through mobile advertising, social networks, videos, etc. Many people consider the press release dead while newspapers fold left and right.

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So what is the best way to communicate with patients these days when we need to reach them about an urgent matter?

Our hospital recently experienced a situation where nearly 200 people were potentially exposed to a person sent to our emergency department with a possible case of measles. We had to reach all of those people to notify them about a possible public health threat.

We worked closely with the state's department of health, as well as with members of the hospital's management team and medical staff. Through a series of conference calls, we came up with steps to address the situation and a communication plan to reach those people who faced exposure. Components of the plan included a script for staff, social media outreach, a press release to all local media outlets and a bank of people to make telephone calls to all who may have been exposed.

Yes, you read that correctly: calling people. Directly. In their homes. And guess what? It was the most effective way to reach them. Also, it was the only way to document whether we actually notified a person, and if that person was protected or needed to be vaccinated.

It was an amazing eye-opener. We could not rely on the local news or social media to ensure everyone got the message. Every day, we depend upon the incredible advances in technology to reach out to and communicate with people.

Yet in a situation like this, we could only rely on one-on-one communication through a tried and true method--the telephone. It was the only effective method that could accommodate our need to document everything and warn patients about a potentially dangerous situation.

Have you experienced a situation where technology was not the answer?

Nancy Cawley Jean is a senior media relations officer for the Lifespan health system in Rhode Island, managing social media for five hospitals and a women's medicine practice.

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