Communicators must lead discussion of change

Each member of the public needs to understand how changes in healthcare will affect him or her personally - and PR pros have a huge role to play.

Healthcare in the US is in the midst of a transformative change that Americans haven't seen since the 1950s. The current system is expensive, outdated, and completely unsustainable. With healthcare consuming nearly 18% of our gross domestic product, the way we utilize and deliver care must change drastically. Beginning this fall, each member of the public needs to understand how these changes in healthcare will affect him or her personally – and PR pros have a huge role to play.
 
Hospital communications teams have to quickly shift from telling the big picture story to outlining specifics that will help citizens understand these changes during a very complicated time in healthcare when patients have more choices and will bear more burden of the cost.
 
At Cleveland Clinic, we are very actively pushing this information to employees and the public through an aggressive media strategy with various experts on value-based care, population health, transparency, and efficiency in healthcare. This includes surveys and polls to gauge the level of understanding our employees and patients have. Such tools help drive our communications strategy and ensure we focus on the right message for the right audience. We've also created internal and external blogs on various topics on an ongoing basis. One example is our CEO's LinkedIn blog, which outlines our organization's perspective on these issues.

As for what patients need to know, all of our messaging focuses on the following four key matters:
 
First, individuals are going to need insurance or pay a penalty. The Affordable Care Act requires you to enroll in an insurance exchange, apply for Medicaid, or buy insurance through your employer. If you don't, you will be charged a tax penalty.
 
Second, your doctor will be part of a bigger team providing care to you and your family. In the near future, you might be seen by a variety of providers such as a nurse practitioner, physician assistant, or other highly trained healthcare professional. An emerging trend is a “shared medical appointment,” in which you get private time with health providers plus a chance to discuss your experience with other patients with similar conditions. Shared appointments are popular in cases of diabetes and various women's health issues.
 
Third, you will be able to shop for healthcare as prices become more transparent and much of those costs are being shifted to the consumer. Competition is good, but consumers should look for providers with expertise and high-quality results. Saving money up front could cost in the long run. Complications from a bad surgery can pave the way for expensive follow-up procedures.
 
Finally, patients will be more active in their own healthcare. For too long, healthcare has been something that was done to you. Now it will be something you do for yourself in partnership with your doctor. Patients will become more focused on getting in shape, eating healthy, and avoiding tobacco. If they don't, they will pay more in healthcare costs.
 
Change is coming and it's communicators' duty to help explain it to patients. Healthcare is one of the largest industries in the US, but it's also one of the least understood. How it will change, who pays for it, and the things you can do to help yourself are critical issues that healthcare communicators will need to focus on going forward.

Eileen Sheil is executive director of corporate communications at Cleveland Clinic, one of the country's top nonprofit academic medical centers. Her column will focus on the myriad challenges of healthcare PR and topics related to the management of the comms function. Sheil can be reached at sheile@ccf.org.

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