Singer: Leaders' failure to communicate is something to fear

While we put great faith in the US government and our healthcare providers to alert us to the risks associated with significant health threats, somehow they faltered in efforts to communicate clearly about Ebola.

Sam Singer, Singer Associates
Sam Singer, Singer Associates

The Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa is perhaps the most miscommunicated health crisis in recent memory. While we put great faith in the US government and our healthcare providers to alert us to the risks associated with significant health threats, somehow they faltered in efforts to communicate clearly about Ebola. The virus has now entered our shores and is frightening the media and the public.

Unlike other global health issues and threats, our government has been slow to help and only recently began gearing up efforts to send additional personnel, supplies, and protective gear to affected areas in West Africa. 

From the start, health leaders and President Obama brushed away the possibility of a domestic outbreak, telling the public not to worry. It was a "don’t panic, we have everything under control" message without any substantive explanation of what was being done and what we would do should it reach the US.

This was a mistake that has only been amplified by recent events, when Ebola went from being a disease in Africa to something right in front of our face. When a patient in Dallas was diagnosed and died from the disease, a shroud of doubt was cast over our government’s ability to prevent Ebola from spreading and its ability to protect the health of American citizens.

Only when the first case of Ebola was diagnosed Stateside did the CDC speak up and say what it should have said months ago: we need to do more. Unfortunately for the government, this response was too little, too late. It has caused the American public to be skeptical of the country’s future response to this disease. Now, of course, a second Dallas nurse has been infected with Ebola after treating a Liberian man who died from the virus last week at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, the hospital confirmed this week.

The miscommunications at the Dallas hospital itself have only complicated matters and raised concerns. Somehow, if news reports are correct, the nurse there allegedly miscommunicated to physicians and failed to inform them the patient had come from West Africa, which surely would have prevented a knowledgeable doctor from allowing him to be sent home as they did.

As this news story swirls around healthcare providers, regulators, and the public, it’s important to keep in mind that the poor response so far has only heightened the public’s fears.

The government and health officials still have an opportunity to quickly tackle this scare before it becomes a full-blown disaster and causes further erosion of public confidence in official statements and health advice.

Credibility is key when communicating health risks and the US government has, to date, slipped in developing credibly. But then, so too have local healthcare providers.

This challenge needs to be met head on, right now. The risk needs to be reevaluated and the government needs to institute new measures to ensure affected individuals aren’t allowed to travel.

Businesses, the government, and healthcare professionals should be actively preparing – and this charge should come from our government leaders.

Equally important, a visible effort to train, teach, and instruct healthcare providers on how to treat – and avoid – the disease should have been instantly started. Instead, President Obama is being forced to cancel trips to deal with what has become a gigantic health scare sweeping the media and the nation.

How comforting is it to Americans that our country’s leader is forced to stay at the White House because of the fears the virus has created?

Sam Singer is president of Singer Associates in San Francisco. He can be reached at singer@singersf.com.

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