How to engage worried health care consumers around COVID-19

There’s enough anxiety out there without messages from health care practices exacerbating the panic. Here’s how to address the problem cogently and calmly.


As communicators strive day and night to get crucial COVID-19 communications in place and keep them  up-to-date, here are some fast tips for how to most effectively communicate with health care consumers in this environment:

Consumer fear and anxiety is escalating to new heights.

Even before COVID-19, consumers were grappling with frayed trust in the economy, brands and the healthcare system.

According to a (subscription-based) Gartner research report, a staggering one third (37%) of all U.S. consumers and almost half (49%) of younger generations (millennials and Gen Zers) worry often or all the time that something undesirable might happen. Similarly, a third (36%) of U.S. consumers and half (50%) of younger generations feel stressed over what they are doing and dread what is coming next.

That’s a level of anxiety and stress that likely hasn’t been seen in this country in decades. Add COVID-19 to this picture and we simply must find a new level of empathy and care in our marketing communications.

Squelch the impulse to overcommunicate.

What this means for us as COVID-19 communicators is that everything must be kept as simple as possible. Use clean designs with simple, obvious calls-to-action.

Create a simple architecture for messaging and channel assignment, meaning every tool that you are using has clear purpose in your marketing communications mix. (Every word should have a clear purpose.)

If any piece of communication is nonessential, spare your overwhelmed consumers. They will be a tad less overwhelmed, and more able to process the next truly critical piece of information they receive from you.

Craft messages that embrace values that matter most to worried consumers.

Remember, this isn’t only about your health system or organization and everything you are doing to prepare for or treat COVID-19, no matter how heroic the effort. This is about the deep-seated fears of your valued patients and communities, and how you can help relieve them.

Consumers have been clamoring for a set of values, including safety, security and comfort, for some time now, and those needs have only been exacerbated. As you are planning and creating your COVID-19 messages, put them through these filters:

  • Does this message help people feel more safe and secure? This could be up-to-date information about measures being taken to disinfect and ensure employee/patient safety.
  • How might you better promote a sense of reassurance and comfort? This might be themed content around consumers’ new day-to-day challenges, such as how to stay physically and mentally healthy when working from home.
  • How might we build community to bring people together during this isolating time? This could include offering online classes or support groups.

Most important, keep COVID-19 communications calm.

Communicators are human, too. It’s often difficult to remain calm as you go about your daily business. You have to respond to daily developments and communication needs at lightning speed. However, it’s crucial that your own anxiety and fear doesn’t translate through to your work, your words or your designs.

With everyone’s sympathetic nervous systems (“fight-or-flight responses”) in overdrive, you must keep your cool to help your audiences do the same.

For example, there are many healthcare websites with giant red or yellow banners and “danger sign” exclamation points across the top of their website home pages. Meanwhile, mega-magnified images of the virus abound, all of which does not offer consumers a greater sense of calm.

Instead, approach your design as though you are trying to spread calmness and clarity rather than a sense of impending doom. Information can be shared in an urgent manner without feeling like panic.

Sue Spaight is the director of insights and strategy at Core Health, Core Creative’s specialized healthcare marketing practice.

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