April 20, 2020 03:40 pm News Staff – Wherever there's a public health crisis, family physicians are among the first to step in to help. From Hurricane Sandy in 2012, to the HIV outbreak driven by IV drug use that devastated southern Indiana five years ago, to today's COVID-19 pandemic, family physicians have been on the front lines to provide care and serve as trusted sources of information.
Of all the tools FPs have at their disposal, the ability to communicate clearly and effectively during a crisis may be the most important. In a recent study in Canadian Family Physician, 16 FPs discussed strategies professional organizations and public health agencies can use to communicate effectively during a public health crisis. Notably, the AAFP has implemented many such tactics during the ongoing pandemic.
All physicians in the study had experienced a public health crisis such as a hurricane or infectious disease outbreak. They were each interviewed about their experiences and asked what recommendations they would make to improve risk communication in a future crisis event. Their responses reflected several common themes, many of which aligned closely with the AAFP's recent actions during the COVID-19 pandemic:
Utilize a single trusted information source. Participants reported that having a single trustworthy source of information would improve risk communication so that FPs could communicate with and inform patients appropriately.
Referring to the 2009-2010 influenza A (H1N1) pandemic, one FP reported, "The most frustrating part was that information was coming uncoordinated from numerous different agencies. It's important for these agencies to collaborate and work together so that there's one stream of information instead of 10 different streams that you have to sort through."
The AAFP first reported on the COVID-19 pandemic in January, just days after the CDC issued a press release on the first U.S. case of the disease. Shortly thereafter, the Academy created a Respond to Coronavirus microsite, which continues to serve as a one-stop portal where members can access a wealth of resources and information about the pandemic and the AAFP's advocacy work on their behalf.
Provide timely, succinct communication. Email was recommended as a quick, resource-friendly way of dispensing information to large groups of people. Participants said that although information may be widely available, it's better to have details and facts sent directly to physicians, and information from public health agencies should be sent in bullet-point form, with the main points or updates clearly highlighted.
"I want short and sweet, relevant emails sent in a timely fashion," said one participant. "… I don't mind having a link to something longer and more detailed if I want to read it. Send me an email directly; don't just assume I'm going to go look it up myself."
For weeks, the AAFP has been sending regular emails about the pandemic to members, along with posting daily updates to provide them with the latest information. The Academy also hosts COVID-19 Virtual Town Halls every Wednesday at 7 p.m. CDT to answer questions from members and deliver additional updates. And each Friday, members can tune in to a one-hour CME webinar on various COVID-19-related topics.
Demonstrate consideration for learners. Many FPs reflected on their experiences as residents or students during crisis situations. They suggested that students and residents may depend more heavily on social media for news and information than on more traditional sources and may have less access to or control over what information is disseminated.
Earlier this month, the Academy instituted a new policy specifically for medical learners. The policy emphasizes medical learner safety and wellness but also includes provisions related to receiving appropriate supervision and decision-making involvement.
Ensure all physicians have access to information. Although most of the physicians who were interviewed referenced email as the best way to communicate during a crisis, some participants recommended social media and even long-established methods such as faxing for transmitting information.
"You can't transmit a lot of information on Twitter, but at least you can say, 'We posted guidelines; you can check them out here,' and then have their website where it's accessible," one participant noted. "The key is communicating the information."
In addition to the Academy's Respond to Coronavirus microsite, which is available to members and nonmembers alike, the AAFP routinely updates its Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as its YouTube channel, with links to news stories and information on the pandemic.
Improve collaboration between family medicine and public health. Study participants wanted to see increased collaboration between FPs working on the front lines during health emergencies and public health agencies and organizations. Many stressed the importance of information sharing and ensuring that contact information such as email addresses was accurate and current.
For its part, the AAFP has partnered with numerous medical and public health groups to advocate on behalf of family physicians and the specialty during the pandemic. In the past month, the Academy has worked with dozens of other groups to ensure that Congress and the administration provide timely financial assistance to physicians and their practices and adjust payment policies to improve cash flow.
Provide information that can be readily distributed to patients. Many participants stressed the importance of having pamphlets, handouts or other reference materials containing accurate, up-to-date information that they could provide to patients.
The Academy's COVID-19: Clinical Resources & Patient Education webpage contains a wealth of information on the pandemic, including links to videos, fact sheets and other items designed specifically with patients in mind.
Ensure that the proper infrastructure is in place ahead of time. Having a system in place before a crisis occurred, and testing that system on a regular basis, were considered key to being able to communicate quickly and effectively.
Arguably, the Academy's ability to respond so quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic stems from its experience addressing comparable situations in the recent past. For example, the AAFP developed and presented similar resource collections on its website in response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak and the 2015-2016 Zika virus outbreak. For more than a decade, the Academy also has hosted a disaster relief/preparedness webpage that features guides and other resources FPs can use in the event of a disaster or emergency.
Noting that FPs encompass a diverse range of experiences with and insights on public health emergencies, the authors suggested that government and public health agencies would do well to adopt such a wide range of ideas to improve risk communication. The result, they contended, would be "a more informed and prepared population of primary care practitioners" that could mitigate the effects of future public health crises.
Furthermore, they concluded, "if stakeholders capitalize on an increasingly diverse array of information channels and foster improved communications between public health agencies, professional organizations, practitioners and others, family physicians will be better informed and prepared to provide the best possible care to their patients" during such crises.