Disaster planning is a widely accepted duty of both hospital management and boards of directors. The disasters most leaders have in mind are either a natural event like a tornado or earthquake that strikes a hospital’s service area, or human-made incidents that involve physical harm, such as a building collapse or a mass-casualty shooting.

As we saw last fall, however, any hospital in the country can be faced with an emerging threat. Even if a patient is diagnosed with something benign, that patient presenting with unfamiliar symptoms and an unusual travel history can raise concern among hospital staff, patients and the community.

While trustees typically inquire about operational preparations for disasters, they should consider it equally important to review the preparations for internal and external communication during such situations. How the hospital communicates about an infectious disease can affect patient volume and reputation, both immediately and in the long term.

During a crisis, patient care will always be the first priority for everyone from the board to front-line staff. But to reassure community members that their health is not in jeopardy, a thorough and tested communication plan must already be in place. There are three elements to keep in mind: becoming an expert source of information; solidifying communication channels with physicians and staff; and testing the plan.

1 Establish your expertise

During an infectious disease outbreak, the community will look to the hospital to demonstrate leadership and establish itself as the most accurate source of information on health and wellness.

If not handled well, however, clinical crises — including the response to infectious disease — can be among the hardest types of disasters from which to recover, because they damage one of a hospital’s most precious assets: its reputation for providing quality care.

Preparation has the most influence on the communication plan’s effectiveness. Communication and relationship-building should start before there is a crisis. Begin by building media relationships, and developing and training on a crisis communication plan that is ready to go at any time. Then, educate the community about your preparations and clinical expertise in this area.

Trustees also must keep the long term in mind. On a regular basis, hospitals and systems should devote some proactive media resources to pitching infectious disease experts, even if these are not tied to service lines that have more traditional business goals. The credibility built up by a steady stream of media interviews and content produced by the hospital, such as blogs, podcasts and videos, pays off when a crisis hits.

Any time your organization can localize a national news story by demonstrating preparedness for a contagious disease well before any suspected cases emerge in your region, it lets your community know that your organization will be ready to act should a serious situation arise. Residents in your service area will be reassured that they can get great care right in their own community.

Traditional media vehicles are important, but not sufficient. Your website needs to be a trusted resource for information on health topics that are dominating the headlines and conversations in your community. Social media also plays a big role in fostering conversations. As a trustee, it is important to encourage communications executives to use a wide-ranging set of tools to reach as many parts of your community as possible.

2 Connect with staff

Your hospital’s employees and physicians are your most important audience in a crisis.

If employees and physicians know how your organization has prepared for these contingencies, they can explain it to patients, family members and friends. This is especially true for crises in which staff and physicians themselves or their families are potentially at risk. Ebola is an obvious example, but severe weather situations when employees are asked to stay at the hospital to ensure sufficient staffing also call for an internal crisis communication plan.

When the board reviews communication plans annually, trustees should ask how information will be distributed to physicians and staff. Will they hear from their most trusted sources? For employees, it’s their direct supervisor; for physicians, it may be a peer.

In addition to emphasizing internal communication, a successful plan also should be tailored to the types of crises that your health system inherently faces either because of its location or because of the industry prevalent in your region, such as oil and gas or manufacturing.

When executives come before the board to present their plans for different types of crises, trustees should determine whether their plans involve communications, as well as a crisis communications team. Communications executives must have a seat at the table when plans are being made, rather than being an afterthought.

Similarly, communications executives must be encouraged to build relationships with the day-to-day hospital operators within your organization. They must know when a situation should be brought to the attention of the communications department. Communications executives can help clinical and other leaders understand how the media works and what they need to get their jobs done without causing disruption on campus.

Trustees also should ask about external relationships with media and public agencies that may be involved with public health or other crises.

Additionally, your communications team might consider providing these audiences — hospital administrators, security, media, public agency peers — with your on-call media schedule, perhaps through a weekly email. This practice ensures that all of these key players know the right person to contact in a crisis situation that occurs during off-hours.

3 Practice the plan

Leaders of any health care organization that has successfully weathered a crisis will point to practice and training as the most important aspects of these preparations.

Part of being prepared includes having clinical and operational leaders properly trained as spokesmen or women. Annual training helps to ensure that the right voices are ready to represent your hospital or system in a moment of crisis. Everyone who potentially could be part of the crisis communications team needs to attend practice exercises on the plan and designate backups for paid time off or other absences.

Finally, trustees should ask about logistics. Are there resources set aside for the communications team in the event of a crisis? Think about worst-case scenarios. One possibility is stocking a cart with a copy of the crisis communication plan, office supplies, chargers for cellphones and other electronics, bottled water and other supplies that can be wheeled out to a site where media are located. Is there a staging area designated for TV trucks and the like? Do the plans include a contingency for managing a crisis in the event the hospital is damaged by weather or man-made disasters?

Deliver a Calming Message

Trustees must consider oversight of crisis communication as essential as oversight of disaster preparations. The Ebola crisis that recently gripped a handful of hospitals demonstrates the importance of communication. The right words, delivered at the right time by the right experts, can quell the fears that an information vacuum otherwise would stoke. 

David Jarrard (djarrard@jarrardinc.com) is president and CEO, Jarrard, Phillips, Cate & Hancock Inc., Nashville, Tenn. Jacqui Gore (jgore@echd.org) is executive director, communications/marketing, Medical Center Health System, Odessa, Texas.