Fourth wave scare: Here's how healthcare communication professionals are gearing up for it

Corporate Affairs teams work with key stakeholders like government, municipals, hospital setups to frame policies, IEC material, and streamline communication to beat misnomers & grapevines

e4m by Shrabasti Mallik
Updated: May 3, 2022 9:26 AM  | 6 min read
communication professionals

About 25 months, millions of vaccination drives, three Covid-19 waves, and numerous stringent protection guidelines later, we are still far from eradicating the virus completely. With the rising Covid numbers in India making headlines, it is being predicted that the fourth wave is on its way. e4m spoke to the healthcare industry’s communications team to understand how well they are prepared and aligned their strategies amid fresh Covid-19 concerns in the country.

"It is important for all of us to continue to adopt Covid appropriate behavior and get the booster vaccine doses, if eligible. Parents should get their kids vaccinated at the earliest," says Ajey Maharaj, Group Head Corporate Communications & PR at Fortis Healthcare. He adds, "Post DGCI’s approval on vaccination for kids, the healthcare delivery institutions have made all the necessary arrangements to get kids and the elderly inoculated. All other necessary arrangements like ICU beds and oxygen supply are in place in case of a sudden spike in Covid cases."

Preparing for an imminent fourth wave

As cases around the new Covid XE variant have started to rise, there has been a multi-pronged response from the healthcare industry. The first - hospital’s have started to swing into action, especially identifying skilled doctors, nursing staff, and paramedics, in addition to ramping up stocks. Second - pharma companies have started adding to their manufacturing capacities medicines to tackle fever, cold, and cough, in addition to antibiotics that are majorly used for patients especially children and comorbid elderly patients. Third - medical device companies have started to ramp up devices and equipment which are largely supplied to hospitals. "And fourth is the Corporate Affairs teams like us, who have started to work with key stakeholders such as the government, municipals, hospital setups to frame policies, IEC material and streamline communication processes to beat misnomers and grapevines. Overall, we are preparing ourselves so that if the infection accelerates, there is no panic and shortage of medical supplies, vaccines, or required devices," points out Dr Rajiv Chhibber, Vice President - External Affairs at Sahajanand Medical Technologies. 

In addition to keeping a close watch on the increasing number of cases and getting prepared for an unforeseen emergency, Maharaj says, "While the cases are rising, the hospitalisation rate is not yet very high and we are well equipped to handle the current volumes." He explains, "We have learned a lot from previous Covid-19 waves and have been taking corrective actions. We are now better equipped, both in terms of knowledge, policies, and procedures as well as infrastructure. For instance, many of our large hospitals now have in-house Vacuum Swing Adsorption (VSA) Oxygen Plants."

In December 2021, The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the federal agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, had issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for MSD's anti-viral pill molnupiravir, following which it was conditionally approved by the Drugs Controller General of India for the treatment against Covid-19 in India. "Prevention and wellness are expected to be two focus areas for offerings and services from the healthcare industry. With the EUA in place for anti-viral drugs, the country will be better prepared to face the Covid wave," states Neelima Dwivedi, Executive Director – Public Policy, Market Access & Communications, MSD Pharmaceuticals Pvt. Ltd.

The imperative role of communications, especially in the healthcare and medical industries

There is a strong correlation between good communication and higher patient satisfaction, opines Maharaj. Whereas Dr Chhibber is of the view that the role of communication in this sector is at its pinnacle as brands are recognising 'communications' as the backbone of sustainability in such testing times. He says, "Since the beginning of the pandemic, the healthcare communications space has undergone a tectonic shift."

Maharaj, too, outlined the commendable work done by Fortis and its communications team during the pandemic and recalled how they had to rely on the experiences of healthcare workers and set-ups in other countries due to lack of medical precedence. "We witnessed how prompt, accurate and actionable communication helped our frontline healthcare workers deliver the best possible care during the pandemic. We also used communication as a tool to improve morale. For instance, we focussed on communicating about patient recoveries and strengthened our communication outreach with existing patients, customers, and stakeholders. We focussed on the right messaging for citizens on how to face and handle the uncertainty and fear and promote Covid-19-appropriate behavior. We were also focussed on providing the right medical advice and busting misconceptions around testing, treatment and vaccinations. Additionally, it was important to communicate to the existing non-Covid patients to visit our hospitals for consultations, if necessary, or contact their regular clinicians at Fortis through e-consults."

Role of communications in crisis management

The advent of the new Covid variant has created uncertainty, stress, emotional disruption, and more in the world. Businesses and organisations are struggling to provide their stakeholders with the appropriate set of resources to overcome the current crisis. The communications and PR offices in most healthcare organisations have helped build trust and hope in organisations and their efforts to adapt to the Covid crisis. According to Dr Chhibber, the PR offices had to further deal with correct messaging and sensitivities that had nations engulfed in a crisis. During the pandemic crisis, Pharma and MedTech companies turned to their PR and communications teams to get out day-to-day operation messages about drug supplies, manufacturing issues, and continuing patient support.

"Crisis communication is crucial for the healthcare sector. The communication roadmap for the crisis is mostly built around four parameters: Ready – Respond – Recover- Restore. Everyone affected by the crisis needs to be given the right information, including the internal stakeholders," says Maharaj.

The most crucial part of any communication is ensuring a continuous flow of accurate information. "Ensuring the availability of accurate information and the transparency in doing so can go a long way in assuaging the public in a crisis," points out Dwivedi.

While there is no ‘one size fits all’ strategy to deliver information, health leaders should ensure that their messaging and communication are anchored in reality, it is also important for them to come forward and consistently debunk false information.

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