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3 Ways Physician Leaders Can Improve Communication During a Crisis

By Anna Mueller, MS17 May 2021

As a physician leader, both your patients and the professionals you manage look to you for guidance, support, instruction and example. And, as we’ve been reminded over the past year, these leadership skills become even more vital during a public health crisis. Without thorough and consistent communication, misinformation develops, and people GettyImages-1213228056are more likely to make mistakes that impact patient outcomes. 

But while each leader has their own communication styles, experts have discovered a few practices are especially valuable during crisis situations.

To help you strengthen your communication efforts, earn more trust from colleagues and patients, and drive better clinical outcomes, consider adopting these proven communication habits:

Use a Single Source to Disperse Information
One of the biggest challenges in most public health crises, particularly COVID-19, is stopping the rapid spread of misinformation. At best, misconceptions and rumors muddy the water and make it harder to share facts — and, at worst, they can be deadly.

To quell falsities and ensure you’re delivering the most helpful information to your team and patients, it’s critical to create a single source of dissemination. In other words, give everyone one place to go to get the most up-to-date facts and latest news. This could be a microsite for patients to get help during a pandemic or natural disaster or an internal site where your team can refresh themselves on the latest policies and procedures before each shift.

However you choose to communicate information, make sure it’s convenient and accessible.

Balance Speed and Accuracy

What’s more important: getting information out quickly or ensuring it is 100% correct? The answer is both. While speed is critical, especially in an emergency, you have to be careful not to add to the rumor mill by providing erroneous information. And if you’re not sure about something, don’t be afraid to admit it. No one expects you to know everything, but they do expect you to guide them in the right direction.

Your job as a leader is to prepare your colleagues and patients to the best of your ability, and that includes providing actionable information. Be upfront, transparent, and make yourself available for follow-up questions and concerns. If you share something you believed to be true and later discover it was inaccurate, correct yourself as quickly as possible. After all, the best leaders are those who are willing to admit when they’re wrong.

It’s a good idea to use phrases like, “based on what we know at this time,” according to Suja Mathew, MD, chair of medicine for Cook County Health and Hospitals System in Chicago, in an article for the American Medical Association. “It allows you to help your readers, or your audience, recognize that this is the best, most accurate, most complete information that you can provide today,” Dr. Mathew said.

Make a Plan for Communicating Updates to Patients

As a crisis unfolds, information can change by the day — and, in some cases, by the hour. As a leader, you need to determine exactly how you’ll keep everyone in the loop as new facts emerge.

At the same time, you don’t want to overwhelm people with more information than they can process or communicate changes so often that they inevitably tune out. Our advice is to share what’s most relevant and direct people on where they can go for more, should they want to delve in further.

And, of course, choose your words carefully. Be honest and don’t over-promise. To avoid conflicting information or confusing messages, provide your team with clear guidelines on what to say when engaging with patients.

Every crisis is different, and, unfortunately, there’s no rule book on how to successfully manage chaotic situations. But by remaining calm, organized, and adhering to the truth, you can efficiently lead your colleagues and patients through challenging times.

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