The coronavirus continues to make global headlines, and people are eager for information. Here are four reminders, if you are one of the many health professionals communicating with patients or the public about the coronavirus, or any health threat.
The coronavirus has people talking, reading, tweeting, and viewing.
One of the core communication responsibilities of public health professionals is disease prevention, including emergency communication. Medical professionals, too, have significant communication roles in a health threat or emergency. I heard from enough health professionals over the last few days to scrap the plans I had for this episode and talk about this instead. I am giving you some reminders when communicating about a health threat.
This is 10 Minutes to Better Patient Communication and I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel.
Crucial communication happens between and among health professionals; between health professionals and the public or individual patients; and between a health system or university, and its surrounding community. These are specialized communication scenarios in many ways. So while you’re gathering the latest information to share, and following the appropriate protocols, here are some gentle reminders about fundamentals you won’t want to forget in all the hustle and the bustle.
In times when there’s a sense of urgency, or the pressure’s really on, I’ve noticed professionals fall into what you might call delivery mode. That is, they have information and they get right down to delivering it. But an eagerness to communicate what we know can trip us up. That’s because we’re focused on what we have to say…rather than on what our audiences need to hear.
Remember to prioritize what people are asking for, whenever possible. That’s right, put the audience first. This isn’t just being nice – there are several research-based reasons why this is important. I’m going to talk about two of them: purpose and emotion. Both of them have an impact on our reading, writing, listening, viewing, and understanding.
I’ve talked before about adult learning theory and how, as adults, we learn what want to learn. We pay attention to what we think will serve our needs and suit our purposes. Our purpose–sometimes called intent–is an important part of the context around communication. Whether we’re reading, listening, or viewing. This purpose or intent shapes how we read and make sense. Though you might not have thought of it before, you already know that you read something differently depending on your purpose for reading it.
During a health threat, it’s reasonable to assume people are turning to you or your organization because they’d like to feel safe, reassured, informed, calmed, perhaps even empowered. So we might say their purpose is to know more so they can feel better or do better.
Now, the emotions. It’s a reasonable assumption that people are turning to you or your organization because they are worried, concerned, maybe afraid, curious, or something like that. Fear’s a heck of a motivator. This isn’t news to you.
What gets less attention is what fear and other emotions have to do with reading, listening, viewing, and understanding. Again, the context around any interaction with language—and that includes viewing images–this context includes our emotions. And the context shapes how we receive and make sense of what we read, hear, and view. I’ve written about this before. Rosenblatt’s Transactional theory states:
“In the linguistic event, any process will be affected also by the physical and emotional state of the individual, e.g., by fatigue or stress. Attention may be controlled or wandering, intense or superficial.” [p.6]
You know what this feels like if you’ve ever tried to read right before bed. You might read and reread the same paragraph multiple times because you’ve not caught a single word you read. Even though you’re perfectly capable of reading and understanding every word, every sentence, you are not making sense of it right now because you’re tired.
In communication around a health threat, this has many implications. As we encounter and interpret information related to our health, our physical and emotional state affects how we interact with what we’re hearing or reading.
Now, Rosenblatt gives us an example that may be helpful to consider for both for what I’m saying about purpose, and emotion:
“An extreme example is the man who has accidentally swallowed a poisonous liquid and who is rapidly reading the label on the bottle to learn the antidote.” [p. 7]
He is reading for a particular purpose, right, to get the antidote. That’s WHY he’s reading. This WHY impacts HOW he reads. As he reads, he is scanning and looking for specific information, rather than reading every word. His emotions also impact HOW he reads. As Rosenblatt suggests, his attention might be controlled and intense because of his urgent need. Then again, he might be panicking and this might interfere with his concentration. He might not be able to make sense of the label in this context, even though he’s capable of reading and understanding every word.
This persons’ purpose, and his physical and emotional state, shapes how he reads and understands the text on the bottle.
As it turns out, the same is true on social media. A recent article on CBC/Radio Canada underlines some of the points I’m making here. Alfred Hermida, professor at the University of British Columbia, drew attention in this article to why there is so much social media activity around the coronavirus, saying, “The reason people are sharing this is because they’re trying to make sense of what is a really complicated situation and also something that is potentially worrying.” Similarly, York University professor Fuyuki Kurasawa, in the same article, says social media can amplify the fear that people have during an outbreak and decrease their ability to filter inaccurate information.
Of course, misinformation is a concern—during a health threat, and every day. Emotion as it turns out may have a hand in people’s choice to spread misinformation on social media. From that same article, Ramona Pringle (from Ryerson University in Toronto) implies that the strong emotion associated with some posts may be one of the reasons people share it and cause it to go viral. She adds that accurate information doesn’t get the same traction online, saying “It doesn’t have the stuff that makes people want to share it. It doesn’t have that shock and strong emotion.”
So keep in mind, sensational stuff can get the shares because it’s sensational; there’s literally strong sensation, strong emotion. It doesn’t mean people aren’t reading or following the good advice.
How do you keep purpose and emotion in mind when you’re communicating in a health threat? Fortunately, there’s an easy way.
- Prioritize people’s questions, whatever they are. Whatever people actually ask you about.
- You may want to make up a FAQ sheet. It may be helpful to put the questions most often asked near the top of this list—whether or not you think they’re the most important questions to ask.
- In your communication, make sure you’re promoting reliable sources. But you might also offer tips on how to tell good info from not so good.
If these few minutes were helpful to you, imagine what I could do for your organization! For expert help on health communication and education, or specialized support on topics such as bias, mentoring, and interprofessional communication, catch me, Anne Marie Liebel, on Twitter, Linked In or at HealthCommunicationPartners.com. This has been 10 Minutes to Better Patient Communication. I’m Dr. Anne Marie Liebel.