Health Care Providers Must Sharpen Crisis Communications

Plan to Respond to Growing Number of Systemic Threats   

By Liam Collopy


Despite a rash of cyber attacks and other growing threats to the medical profession, many healthcare companies and organizations are ill-prepared when it comes to effective crisis communications.

Cause for concern is getting acute, as consumers are more skittish than ever about their protected health information (PHI) being compromised, due to high-profile breaches such as Anthem and Allscripts.

The recent RSA Data Privacy Report, which surveyed 7,500 consumers in the U.S. and Europe, showed that 59 percent of the respondents were concerned about their medical data being compromised, while 39 percent were worried that a hacker would tamper with their medical information.

This year might be the worst year for computer breaches yet, with 67 percent of CISOs saying a cybersecurity attack will happen to their organization this year, according to a recent survey from Ponemon Institute.

Indeed, for many healthcare organizations it’s not a matter of if their computer systems get hacked but when—and how quickly they can cauterize the wound(s).

Whether it’s a cybersecurity attack, security breach within physical locations or major screwup regarding medical supplies, hospitals face potential crises on multiple fronts these days.

All told, it’s enough to make senior healthcare executives and C-suite executives sick.

The remedy is to sharpen crisis communications plans post-haste.

Hospitals and healthcare providers don’t have to reinvent the wheel, of course, but certainly need to update their crisis communications strategies and find proactive ways to leverage both traditional and digital messaging.

With that in mind, here are three ways hospitals and health care providers can bolster their crisis communications plans: 

  • Hire dedicated cyber security personnel. Hackers are not just targeting hospitals—which presents its own set of troubles—but medical devices, as well. That’s an extremely unnerving prospect for hospitals’ boards of directors and C-suite executives. Medical-device systems are easy to hack because the computers often run on antiquated, unsupported systems. The best way to mitigate the problem is for hospitals to upgrade their technologies and invest in qualified cyber security personnel who in turn can work directly with communications pros. Investing in these areas is mission-critical; if hospitals and healthcare providers want to remain viable, they have no choice.
  • Marshall multiple media channels online and offline. Hospitals should harness multiple media channels to educate and inform their stakeholders about what to do/what their role is in the event of a crisis. Regardless of the channel, the information must be declarative and easily digestible. Throughout physical locations like hospitals and clinics include easy-to-understand signage about the provider’s crisis communications plans and cite relevant websites for patients to visit to get more detailed information. Communicators also need to train medical providers about how to deploy various social channels during a crisis (and also stay within regulatory bounds). You definitely need to automate your social channels so they are able to distribute instant messaging during a crisis, as well information about the aftermath. Most important is how you measure the overall effectiveness of your crisis communications so your organization can learn from its efforts and make improvements accordingly.
  • Set up communications protocols. When a crisis hits Job One for hospitals is to ensure continuity of care as they assuage stakeholders’ concerns. In a crisis situation half the battle is proper preparation and having strong contingency plans in place. Perhaps most crucial protocol-wise is for communications pros to create a living, breathing crisis communications document—smartly distributed online and offline—that enumerates protocols, answers frequently asked questions and any directions/phone numbers. etc regarding contingency plans.

There are ample reasons for U.S. healthcare companies to reset their crisis communications plans, ranging from an aging population increasingly tapping into medical services to the tremendous advances in medical procedures/devices.)

But the advances in medical care and high-tech treatments are a double-edged sword: They prolong life and make things more comfortable for patients, but also leave hospitals open to cyber breaches and other bad actors looking to make trouble online.

To get ahead of the issue, hospitals and healthcare organizations must proactively ramp up their crisis communications plans to brace for what’s expected to be significant changes in patient care, the medical system and how medical providers engage the public.

Liam Collopy is Executive Vice President of Harden Communications Partners, a Stanton agency.

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