What does COVID-19 mean for healthcare comms?

The pandemic could signal dramatic changes for the industry including a depletion of physical congresses, and the rise of telehealth.

It's not news anymore that COVID-19 has put an unimaginable strain on the healthcare industry. Media outlets and social platforms are rife with stories of healthcare frontliners working round the clock and risking their lives to manage admissions. Alongside the day-to-day struggles, researchers are scrambling to safely and assuredly develop a vaccine that could bring sweeping relief to the world.

So what does all this mean for healthcare PR?

According to Emma Thompson (pictured below), founder and managing partner of healthcare comms agency Spurwing Communications, expectations are high for the healthcare industry to lead, step forward and innovate as global scrutiny intensifies.

"Before COVID-19, the industry might have been looking for support, guiding and signposting and giving comfort to their employees. So it's a quick response focused on internal calls," says Thompson.

"But during COVID-19, the big issue has been about making sure patients know how to get to their drugs. So you've got patients terrified to go to the doctors and hospitals for non-life-threatening diseases, but they are diseases that if not managed properly, could become life-threatening. As we all know, the frontline is completely exhausted. So for healthcare companies whether pharmaceuticals or medtech companies, their role and our role to support for them is to make sure that they can explain to patients how to get access to their drugs on a continuous basis."

This has led to a drastic uptick of telehealth, what Thompson predicts could be the biggest takeaway healthcare trend from COVID-19. Telehealth simply refers to the dissemination of healthcare services and information through digital platforms. Singapore’s MyDoc and the UK’s Babylon Health are examples of apps that allow patients to video-call their doctors for advise. In India, WhatsApp may be used as a main platform between doctors and patients.

For a condition like diabetes, for instance, patients can continually test their blood sugar levels from home and their doctors can log on and track those figures. Where needed, prescription can be delivered without the patient making a physical trip to the medical centre. Thompson says that while not all illnesses can be treated this way, the adoption of telehealth for manageable diseases is giving people a solution where they might be afraid to step into a hospital at this time.

The biggest challenge for healthcare comms, according to Thompson, is to make sure that organisations, patients and doctors are still talking to each other. Major medical congresses such as ASCO in the US are often viewed as key calendar dates where information is shared and disseminated.  

“These are gatherings of thousands of people that just can't happen in a COVID-19 era or perhaps for the next couple of years. Who knows? So the challenge now is: How do you disseminate your news at this time?” says Thompson.

“Companies can be smart here and use targeted marketing or sponsored content. There's a real opportunity to make sure that your news hits the people you really wanted to get in front of.”

Another major development is the rise of digital media platforms for healthcare organisations. Thompson's agency has been inundated with digital projects as clients seek ways to host webinars or use other digital means to communicate with the public or stakeholders.

"We'll see more content and greater mandates coming from global headquarters to keep engaging stakeholders digitally, so I think there will be less reliance on those physical congresses. And we'll see more webinars bringing data in, rather than saved up for those key moments once a quarter," says Thompson.

And similar to other sectors within PR, internal communications is especially prevalent now.

"When we look at internal communications, it moved very quickly from helping you get set up at home, to checking in and making sure people are feeling okay. We see internal communications topics that are coming up time and time again, such as resilience and mental health and well-being in general," says Thompson.

Thompson adds that there will also be more comms around the actual logistics of healthcare. "COVID-19 has already dramatically changed how healthcare has delivered. It's also changing the logistics and our access to drugs, and the supply chain is going through a big change. So I think there's a B2B element in comms there, and we'll see an uptick," she says.

If there was one good thing to come out of this bleak period, it's that the pandemic has acted as a unification of the industry, and subsequently led to a unification in messaging.

"If we look at all the news around COVID-19, it always comes from centralised or government associations. And on the innovation side, this has created an amazing platform for companies to truly come together to collaborate. It's almost like a pre-competitive space now," says Thompson.

"What is going to be the treatment for COVID-19? That's where we're seeing pharmaceutical companies come together. And isn't about being the first to the line. It's about making sure we're getting the best solution."


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