COVID-19 Healthcare Communications Response: The Next Steps Forward

Our nation now has the highest number of COVID-19 related deaths in the world, while, at the same time, some experts tell us that the worst may be behind us nationally, but not in all localities—a confusing situation to digest. This pandemic has had such an incredible and sudden impact on nearly every American. But individuals have been, and will continue to be, impacted uniquely. Consequently, the role that the health plan plays in the communication of clear and personalized messages has never been more important. We queried health plans across the country to better understand how they are transforming engagement to meet this new need. Responses varied of course, but, consistently, we see that consumer communications are a central point of focus. Almost 50% of plans report shutting off all communications unless they are focused on COVID-19 <click here for the full report>.

While the CDC, National Institutes of Health, state governments, and even some local government agencies are providing general information, consumers require assistance in addressing their own individual needs related to personal risk, health benefits, economic concerns, and other ongoing changes that will impact their care. In our survey, plans ranked the most important messages that they are prioritizing in this pandemic (most important is 1):

1) Hand-washing and other health behaviors

2) Telehealth information

3) Benefits, coverage, etc.

And plans cited the following as the most common COVID-19 related topics raised by members who call member services for assistance:

1) COVID-19 testing coverage and related benefits

2) Member specific benefit changes (i.e., home health visits, etc.)

As you can see, there is a disconnect between what is being provided versus members’ stated concerns. Supplying timely information on topics consumers care about can help build trust.

As important as it is to communicate the information that members need right now, are you ready for the coming months? Consumers need information and a roadmap now for what they should be doing about the care they have been deferring. We may experience a “new normal” for some time that will impact preventive care, home health visits for high-risk members, routine doctor visits, and elective procedures. Our planning and actions taken now will dictate how smoothly we emerge from the current crisis to address the deferred needs—routine, acute and chronic.

Lastly, a word about tactics. Sending a letter or other print piece to consumers about a fast-changing pandemic feels like the pony express. Three weeks ago, hand washing was a prioritized topic, then social distancing. Now some focus will be on the social supports necessary to help the vulnerable. So, now, more than ever, we need to leverage digital channels for the purpose of immediacy if nothing else. Capture, store and manage communication preferences in order to reach members where they are, when they want, and via the channel they prefer. Enable the data management processes and technologies required. Put in place the governance policies and processes. Begin the journey toward consumer-centricity.

Health plans by and large have a consumer trust problem as evidenced by various polls in recent years. Individual members are in need now. Providing the right and timely information and support that helps members address their own individual needs might just help plans build trust.

Kathleen Ellmore

Ms. Ellmore is one of the earliest pioneers in bringing the best of consumer marketing and data driven methodologies to healthcare. Instead of getting you to eat when you are not hungry and buy things you don’t need, we can finally use the same strategies to instead change the health equation in America. Kathleen previously led the Consumer Engagement consulting practice for Welltok (formerly Silverlink) for 12 years, leveraging its data repository of over a billion consumer health interactions, the best of behavioral economics, and the latest in clinical research, to create evidenced-based communications on what works to drive consumer healthcare behavior yielding better outcomes and lower costs. She is often quoted in the trade and national press and is a regular speaker on the national stage, having spent the first twenty years of her career in brand marketing at leading consumer marketing organizations, including General Mills and P&G. Additionally, she was a Vice President at Digitas, a leading direct marketing firm. Recently she was selected as Consultant Member of the first ever FDA’s Patient Engagement Advisory Committee.