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How to communicate with frightened healthcare consumers during the COVID-19 crisis

Strategy for effective communication with healthcare consumers

As we work day and night to get crucial COVID-19 communications in place immediately and constantly up-to-date, here are some fast tips for how to most effectively communicate with healthcare consumers in this environment.


Consumer fear and anxiety is escalating to new heights.

Even before COVID-19, consumers were grappling with frayed trust in the economy, brands and the healthcare system. According to a (subscription-based) Gartner research report released yesterday, a staggering one third (37%) of all U.S. consumers and almost half (49%) of younger generations — Millennials and Generation Z — worry often or all the time that something undesirable might happen. Similarly, a third (36%) of U.S. consumers and half (50%) of younger generations feel stressed over what they are doing and dread what is coming next. That is a level of anxiety and stress that likely hasn’t been seen in this country in decades. Add COVID-19 to this picture and we simply must find a new level of empathy and care in our marketing communications.

Now more than ever, keep it simple. Squelch the impulse to over-communicate.

I’m a strategist, not a neuroscientist. But I read enough about neuroscience to know that when a person is afraid, the activated amygdala in their brain makes it basically impossible to process information and think rationally. (My cognitive behavioral therapist tells me this all the time, too.)

What this means for us as COVID-19 communicators is that everything must be kept as simple as possible. Use simple language in simple designs with simple, obvious calls-to-action. Create a simple architecture for messaging and channel assignment — meaning every tool that you are using has clear purpose in your marketing communications mix. Actually, every word should have a clear purpose. If any piece of communication is nonessential, spare your overwhelmed consumers from receiving one more thing from you in the firehose of information. They will be a tad less overwhelmed, and better able to process the next truly critical piece of information they receive from you.

Message towards the values that matter most to worried consumers.

Remember, this isn’t only about your health system or organization and everything you are doing to prepare for or treat COVID-19, no matter how heroic. This is about the deep-seated fears of your valued patients and communities, and how you can help relieve them.

Consumers have been clamoring for a set of values including safety, security and comfort for some time now, and those needs just got turbocharged, according to Gartner. As you are planning and creating your COVID-19 messages, put them through these filters:

  • Does this message help people feel more safe and secure? (e.g. up-to-date information about measures being taken to disinfect and ensure employee/patient safety)
  • How might we better promote a sense of reassurance and comfort? (e.g. themed content around consumers’ new day-to-day challenges, such as how to stay physically and mentally healthy when working from home)
  • How might we build community to bring people together during this isolating time? (e.g. offering online classes or support groups)

Most of all, keep COVID-19 communications calm.

We communicators are human, too, of course — so it’s often difficult to remain calm right now as we go about our daily business. We all need to respond to daily developments and communication needs at lightning speed. As we do so, it’s crucial that our own anxiety and fear doesn’t translate through to our work, our words or our designs. With everyone’s sympathetic nervous systems (“fight-or-flight responses”) in overdrive, we must keep our cool to help our audiences do the same.

For example, we’re seeing many healthcare websites with giant red or yellow banners — and “danger sign” exclamation points — across the top of their website home pages. Meanwhile, mega-magnified images of the virus abound, which also will not offer consumers a greater sense of calm. This sets off an alarm in the viewer’s brain. Instead, let’s approach design as though we are trying to spread calmness and clarity rather than a sense of impending doom. Information can be shared in an urgent manner without feeling like panic.

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author

Sue Spaight is the director of insights and strategy at Core Health, Core Creative’s specialized healthcare marketing practice. Core Health connects its clients with solutions that help their audiences live fuller, healthier, more purposeful lives.

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