David Jarrard
David Jarrard

Society has been challenged by wave after wave of the unknown. Our consultancy focuses exclusively on healthcare organizations—and the physicians, nurses, leaders and other heroes who care for patients—where the questions include: Should I go back to the doctor’s office? Whom should I trust, my doctor or my governor? Where can I get real information?

It’s been a wake-up call, reminding us that delivering care isn’t just about the medical science; it’s about creating an environment where people feel safe, cared for and comfortable. That reminder has, in turn, revealed a clear opportunity for healthcare communications: to identify and equip the right messengers and, by doing so, elevating their organizations. And then, to help ensure the operational reality fits with the messages being delivered.

Clinical staff are ideally positioned to deliver both the scientific and emotional messages needed to create this environment. It’s needed more now than ever. A recent survey fielded by our firm revealed the public doesn’t feel particularly safe in healthcare settings. Whether a doctor’s office, hospital, outpatient surgery center, ER or urgent care center, American adults rated their feelings of safety no higher than 5.8 on a 10-point scale. They were also no more likely to return for care in September than they were when we ran a similar survey in April. Furthermore, barely half (53 percent) of people responding to our September survey said they were likely to get a COVID-19 vaccine when available. Clearly, there’s work to be done in getting people the care they—and society—need.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '20 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine (view PDF version)

What, then, is the role of communications to help people feel comfortable, allay their fears, bring them back and give them a great experience when they arrive?

First, communications teams need to elevate clinical staff to be the key messengers. Our survey showed that nurses and doctors are highly trusted when it comes to delivering information about healthcare. Almost nine out of 10 respondents said they trust clinicians—a markedly higher number than trust in any other group or institution—and a similar proportion said they expect doctors and nurses to be involved in healthcare conversations and educate the public.

This opens up a clear opportunity for communications teams to identify, train and equip clinical staff to become the messengers for their organizations and leverage the remarkable trust they carry. In this moment, communications teams must be involved in the conversation and push to ensure that leadership isn’t just answering the question, “What do we need to say?” but also, “Who needs to say it?” If the “who” is a trusted voice, the message has a good chance of resonating. If not, with uncertainty and even fear running rampant, the message—no matter how important and factually accurate—can be lost.

Second, they can help healthcare providers deliver on the experience they’re promising. That entails keeping a watchful eye on corporate body language. We all understand the idea of body language and instinctively know that the wrong body language will drown out the most well-spoken words. The same is true for organizations, especially in healthcare. Every hospital or clinic has body language. And it speaks so much louder than advertising. Or good intentions. Or even a friendly white coat.

We’ve seen what happens when the body language of a provider isn’t right. For instance, when fear of the virus was at its zenith in May, one of my partners walked into a major academic medical center for a gall bladder surgery appointment. After the consult—a “stunningly terrible” experience—she walked out and scheduled her surgery elsewhere. A whole host of “body language” issues had led her to leave: confusing parking, dirty elevators, caution tape across chairs, bad lighting, no evidence of frequent cleaning and more. Maybe most damning was the distinct lack of empathy and warmth from the individuals she encountered along the way, including the resident and surgeon who conducted the consult, which serves as an example of when clinicians are not appropriately equipped.

If the communications team—whether internal or external—is responsible for the message and equipping the messengers, then it stands to reason that communications must also be heavily involved in ensuring that the message is lived. How an organization presents itself is, at its core, an issue of communications, not just verbal but experiential. Therefore, even if the communications team isn’t physically responsible for sanitizing pens, it must be at the table for conversations about how the organization functions while interacting with patients.

As we move away from the acute pandemic phase, the specific operational decisions and communications campaigns will change. But the principle remains: When people interact with a provider, they need to experience the same positive emotions they feel when they hear and see an ad for that provider. Creating that continuum and ensuring that the message and the experience match is a role that communications teams should advocate for and embrace.


David Jarrard is President and Chief Executive Officer of Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock.