Large-scale emergencies such as pandemics require the cooperation between a number of agencies, groups, staff and individuals. Having pre-established communication channels and positive working relationships allow orderly and organised flow of useful information.
Where staffing numbers permit, practices may consider appointing a communications coordinator in addition to the pandemic coordinator.26 The communications coordinator would be responsible for developing a pandemic communications policy and reviewing communication plans periodically.
The plan should include:
- identification of key contacts (with back-ups)
- the chain of communication (including suppliers and customers)
- processes for tracking and communicating business and employee status.
6.5.1 Communicating with patients
All practices should prepare a list of vulnerable patient groups. This should be regularly updated and be readily available for use in case of any type of emergency.
Practices should plan and prepare for open, realistic and continuing communication with the public.42 Patients need to know that their general practice is a reliable source of accurate, balanced and up-to-date information. Methods of communication will vary depending on the practice and patient groups. Practices should consider a range of communications methods during a pandemic to maximise reach to patients and to handle the extra pressure that is placed on communications during a pandemic. Examples include:
- posters and signs at the entrance to the practice and in the waiting room (refer to posters contained within the Pandemic toolkit)
- fact sheets and brochures (health department literature given to patients at reception may help manage expectations)26
- attachments to patient receipts
- waiting room videos
- podcasts played over an audio system in the waiting room
- mail outs
- practice website (upload information to inform patients as to how the practice is working toward being pandemic-prepared and to notify patients of health alerts and health management/self-care)
- credible websites with relevant information
- on-hold telephone call waiting messages
- phone answering machine message
- external building signage
- internal building signage such as a pandemic ‘notice board’ dedicated to pandemic planning and updates.
These communication sources should all be ‘date stamped’ so that patients know how up-to-date the information is. Communication topics include home care, how to prevent infection, when to call for an appointment, when to go to the emergency departments and when not to go, frequently asked questions, community-based resources and practice policies.
Whatever form the communication takes, it must be clear, concise and consistent with factual information released by national and international public health organisations (ie. Department of Health and WHO). One suggested method is to provide regular updates that describe what we know, what we don’t know, what we are doing and when the next update will be released.
Alarmist framing of health threats may be counterproductive.43 When confronted with respected health authorities responding in an alarmist way, people may panic, feel overwhelmed or lose respect for authorities if the threat does not materialise. These responses all prevent effective ongoing communication and action.
Patients should be made aware of how they can obtain information and how they can protect themselves and their families if a pandemic should occur in their locality, what symptoms to look for, when to seek help, how to access home quarantine and isolation support services, and the use of and availability of antiviral medications and PPE (as appropriate).
Ensure all communication methods with your patients take into consideration:
- cultural backgrounds (language differences) and cultural diversity
- vision impairment
- hearing impairment
- lack of literacy and numeracy
- technological capabilities.
Also consider patients who might be outside the usual systems, such as the homeless.
Remember having up-to-date information is crucial; provide staff with regular updates regarding the pandemic, including:
- what is known
- what is unknown
- what is being done
- when the next update will be released.
6.5.2 Communicating with other healthcare providers, agencies and authorities
Engaging with local agencies and services during the pandemic planning phase should help develop positive working relationships during an outbreak of infectious disease. Lists (electronic and hardcopy) should be developed of important local contacts such as:
- state and territory health departments
- Primary Health Networks
- nearby general practices
- community health services
- local hospitals and pharmacies
- social support groups (including mental health support services, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and culturally and linguistically diverse groups).
The contacts list should be available in both electronic form and hardcopy (in case of an IT outage). Some organisations may not have the capacity to operate during a pandemic. This may mean an increase in workload for general practices that do continue to operate. Planning for this enables practices to factor in potential patient surges. Alternatively, some may consider running flu clinics, which may decrease the practice’s caseload.
Plan the type of communication strategy you will have with these organisations (eg. regular emails, phone) and list the points of contact in each.
Practices must coordinate planning for pandemics with state and federal governments. The Australian Government has developed a coordinated and consistent communications strategy for the health sector regarding avian and pandemic influenza. The communications strategy is designed to be flexible (to adapt and expand to accommodate new policy measures, or developments in the disease threat) and to ensure communications effectively address changing information needs. In addition, state and territory health authorities will communicate with the public and general practices about local arrangements such as flu clinics and vaccination services.
6.5.3 Social media applications
Social media includes social networking sites, Twitter, blogs, forums and podcasts (live video and audio). Social networking has made significant contributions to emergency response and recovery in global disasters (eg. information alerts and warnings). Australia’s per capita use of social networking is among the world’s highest.44
Practices could investigate how social media could help communicate with patients during a pandemic. Note there are significant considerations regarding the use of social media, including privacy issues; consequently any use of social media should be well planned and assessed for risk before implementation.