The Communicators’ Assembly Point 3: Healthcare Communications

These are fast-changing, confusing times, if we gauge how healthcare systems are faring amid COVID-19. Creating havoc globally, the pandemic has put pressure not just on public health systems, but also on brand crisis communications.

Navigating reputation in post-COVID era, focusing on healthcare communication was the centre of discussion at The Communicators’ Assembly Point: 3.The participants were Bhavna Singh, Senior Director – Communications & Patient Advocacy at Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India (OPPI), Jasrita Dhir, Head – Brand, Marketing & CSR at Fortis Healthcare, Magline Rufina, Head – Communication at Roche Diagnostics India & Neighbouring Markets, Manjira Sharma, Head of Global External Communications, Lupin Global and the talk was moderated by Noumaan Qureshi, Adfactors PR.

The way forward for healthcare

Considering what is happening today in the healthcare business and in the foreseeable future, how can we see communications going forward? Referring to a recent data analysis survey conducted on COVID, Noumaan revealed that ‘healthcare’ has got the highest visibility. Then the question here is – is the end-user, the patient running ahead of the sector, in terms of technology adoption? With e-consultation and wearable technology, the business has moved ahead fast. The healthcare business has been taking tentative steps and e-consultancy is the need of the hour, said Jasrita and added that “we need to come up with communication aids to handhold people that make a difference”.

Connecting with the audience

With the lockdown and social distancing, this is probably the most testing time for most brands to reach out and connect with their audience. Facing a slowdown, marketing will need a lot of creativity to ensure that the brand message is effectively communicated. So, is there an opportunity to drive quality narratives now? Diagnostics has always been at the backyard and then came COVID into our lives and everything changed, expressed Rufina. The conversations have become easier; and from the common man’s perspective, the role is not so much about talking about adopting it, but simplifying it.

India’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been quite exemplary. In fact, India scored a perfect 100 on the “Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT)” – that aimed to track and compare government responses to the coronavirus outbreak worldwide. The healthcare companies represented here, found the Government open to discussion. And, as the world waits for a vaccine, how would expectations of the stakeholders look like? “We believe that now, more than ever, the world is looking at this business, with expectant eyes to come out with a solution. Stakeholders have realised the value of research and science,” shared Bhavna. They had tracked responses, and after sharing the stories of the committed scientists fighting on relentlessly – which unveiled the fact that these are indeed, stories of inspiration.

Something which the pandemic has thrown up is the importance of – digital connectivity. Digital is here to stay. Engagement with doctors has moved on to the digital space. So, how can we envisage the changes in communication in the road ahead? According to Manjira, it’s not just the Indian pharma business that is leveraging technology, but its penetration across the country is a reality. “We rose to that, well before COVID and doctor engagement will continue. In emerging markets, we have seen digital engagement,” she shared.

Communication opportunities opening up?

Crisis has become an unprecedented part of our lexicon today. Referring to the newspapers and how they ran ad campaigns to establish their credibility, Noumaan questioned – can healthcare do that? What are the communication opportunities opening up? It is human behavior, and in times of crisis, we turn to experts for advice, thought Bhavna aloud. People are seeking for the right information. “It’s an opportunity and it’s our responsibility to communicate the right thing and dispel myths”, she insisted. Today communication is all ‘digital’ and ironically the pharma business was the last to adopt ‘digital’!

So, the players in the healthcare sector stand fully committed to partner with the government as a national duty. “Truly it has become a collaborative effort between the government and private players or the provider and the patient. We cannot do anything alone!” pointed out Jasrita and went on to say that the role of communication in crisis, should be to allay fear and psychosis and inject positivity. Agreeing to this, Rufina, who hoped this crisis doesn’t become chronic, noted that the healthcare sector cannot be seen as opportunists; people are losing lives and it is a dark situation, but positivity must be injected in the communication and being sensitive to the needs of people is critical (and taking out campaigns will seem insensitive). COVID-19 is a healthcare crisis and it’s imperative that the Indian pharma sector projects a beacon of hope, demystifying myths. India is critical in the supply chain, and “as healthcare practitioners, we need to talk to the leadership teams too and be at the frontline and drive transparent hope”, felt Manjira.

Is listening happening?

When the question came up – is contextual listening happening, the discussion turned a corner, to how are we aligning communication to fulfill information needs; and incidentally, ‘health insurance’ remains the most searched topic. Rufina was quick to point out that “It’s all about tomorrow and we need to encourage people to talk about tomorrow – that’s where preventive healthcare comes in. And, there’s a lot of appetite to ‘listen’ today”. It’s important not just to listen, but drive decision-making towards the future, where we can ease out people’s burden.

With social media being the primary medium for information consumption today, clear, end-to-end crisis communication becomes key in dealing with such a pandemic. Having noted that brands and organizations did step up on social listening, Jasrita shared that Fortis was involved in doing webinars and running free healthlines across the country.

What are top priorities?

To sensitise patients, infuse positivity & build trust: Bhavna
Remove stigma around COVID-19, continue the goodwill that healthcare has garnered and enhance reputation: Manjira
To balance the agility of response, celebrate recoveries, lead the digital transformation journey and sustain collaboration between the government & the private sector. It needs to be a way of life!: Jasrita

Ultimately, the challenges that organisations face are unprecedented and can seem overwhelming. Will healthcare get more focused in the future? Change has happened, for sure. Communication jobs will change and it will get more strategic, said Rufina. Today, people have woken up and we have to bring in a nuance into the conversation – how are we going to straddle reputation management and hope, questioned Manjira.

More jobs definitely, but more budgets? Not sure, speculated Jasrita. Healthcare communications is a tough nut to crack, said Bhavna and signed off with a dialogue from ‘Patch Adams’:

You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you’ll win, no matter what the outcome.

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Shree Lahiri
Shree is the Senior Editor at Reputation Today and hopes to move from one focus area to another in the editions that will be released this year. Having worked in Corporate Communications teams, she has experience of advertising, public relations, investor and employee communications, after which she moved to the other side – journalism. She enjoys writing and believes the power of the pen is indeed mighty. Covering the entertainment beat and the media business, she has been involved in a wide range of activities that have thrown open storytelling opportunities.

She can be reached at: @shree_la on twitter

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