Last week, the Trump Administration took a step that few saw coming: Having hospitals begin reporting COVID-19 case numbers directly to the HHS and the White House instead of the Center for Disease Control (CDC). While the system of reporting positive cases and the stress on hospitals has been imperfect, this new step could make healthcare communications more difficult than ever before.
Any time there is a health emergency, healthcare workers, scientists and researchers heavily rely on information being provided by NGO’s and unified bodies such as the W.H.O. and CDC. Although it can be convoluted at times, these medical professionals rely on all available real-time information to help curb the spread of a virus or disease, such as COVID-19, and to create general treatment and prevention plans for patients. Taking away this line of communication could have detrimental impacts that ripple far beyond the people who rely on it most.
Beyond that, this sudden change requires hospitals to learn a completely new system to report its COVID-19-positive cases. In an already cumbersome process, hospitals will have to manually enter all data, adding extra stress to already stressed hospital systems.
As communicators, we’re taught that transparency is king. But when working in healthcare communications, we often face many hurdles that challenge this concept. From HIPAA laws and patient privacy, to government and institutional restrictions, we must strike a balance in being transparent and delivering necessary information to the public, while maintaining a level of privacy and confidentiality that healthcare organizations require.
In the wake of this new decision, many fear that the transparency of the COVID-19 crisis will be eliminated, and with this data no longer being easily accessible to the general public, understanding the magnitude of the crisis will undoubtedly become more challenging.
When thinking about this decision, it’s important to take a step back and understand how this will change the way we communicate on behalf of the healthcare organizations we represent. On the surface, this decision is problematic for many reasons. However, our mission and goals as communicators should remain the same.
On a national scale, it is possible that data becomes more sparse, and difficult for hospitals to access and share. But, on a regional and local scale, it is our job as communicators to help get the information out, work with partners and other health systems, and remain dedicated to sharing the level of transparency required to combat health emergencies.
It’s no secret that from the onset of the pandemic, COVID-19 has become highly politicized. And while that is unlikely to change anytime soon, we must do all we can to separate healthcare from politics.
So what can we do? First and foremost, we must establish consistent, reliable communication channels for healthcare providers to accurately report and share information. By doing so, we create a sustainable environment to continue the conversation on research and development, and ultimately help continue to offer transparency to the publics that rely on it.
It’s also important for us to help contextualize the data we communicate with the public, and help them understand what it really means. Oftentimes, especially when the data becomes politicized, it is very easy for the public to be confused and conflicted when trying to make sense of the data they are presented with. As communicators, it is our job to make the information as easily digestible for the public as possible, and offer support to the claims we make.
Moreover, it is our job to help the public accept that any reporting during a public health crisis is an imperfect system. As healthcare providers continue to learn more about COVID and how it evolves, we must help the public understand why information changes frequently and help them accept this constant change and development. Without that understanding, it is hard to establish credibility and transparency when communicating important updates and information.
Only time will tell what additional challenges this creates, and what else we need to do to adapt to the ever-changing healthcare industry.