Recently, two Americans were brought back to the US after contracting the Ebola virus in West Africa while conducting missionary medical work there. Once infected, patients can become gravely ill and recovery is extremely difficult, even in the best of circumstances. In fact, only a small group of hospitals across the country are truly equipped to handle such rare medical infectious conditions.
Diseases that are public health matters can be confusing and frightening to citizens, especially when information can be so easily miscommunicated. Fear of an outbreak can cause panic. Hospital leaders must be ready to respond to the public, the media, employees, and to those emergencies that could potentially bring these complex-to-treat patients to their hospitals.
Thankfully, the risk of an Ebola outbreak in the US is extremely low. The virus is transmitted by an exchange of fluids, not through handshaking, for example. In addition, American hospitals are much better equipped than hospitals in many other countries. US facilities have more stringent protocols and higher standards to treat patients with infectious diseases. Patients are immediately placed in extreme isolation and hospital workers are in protective gear to prevent the transmission of infection.
All of the above is reassuring information a nervous public needs to hear. And the Center for Disease Control and Prevention did a great job of managing the messages and reducing panic. Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the CDC, was consistently available to the media and stayed on message to effectively educate the public about what his organization and hospitals were doing to manage the situation. His visibility went a long way to demonstrate the CDC's credibility and reinforce the perception that it was administering the best possible care.
When any patient comes to the emergency room with a high fever, doctors take an important history to identify the possible risks of a rare disease. Soon after the Ebola victims came back to the US, we had a patient from our area who was traveling back from an African country with a high fever, putting our physicians on high alert. We had to take extreme cautions and notify the CDC, who instructed us to inform the Ohio Department of Health.
Fortunately, the patient's fever came down within days and any serious infection was later ruled out. When I got the first call from our physicians, I quickly learned they had mobilized a special team to handle this potential case very specifically. Clearly, communications was high on the list of their priorities as I was among the first people they called.
The Ebola crisis reinforces how crucial it is for hospitals to think these situations through and develop a comprehensive team, including internal and external communications, so they are able to handle potential high-risk, high-visibility patients and the concern among the public and hospital workers. Employee communications to those working at facilities dealing with these issues is of paramount importance, too. Even the slightest threat that Ebola or any infectious disease can spread will spur tremendous fear for those directly involved and to the public at large. Accurate, consistent information is crucial. It minimizes panic, but it also serves a key role in ensuring patients get the best treatment.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.