COVID-19 has spiked the biggest volume of healthcare communications in living memory. The tsunami of health information from wall-to-wall press conferences and public health announcements, to text messages and 24 hour social media analyses, has been unprecedented. As the pandemic has evolved around the world, the critical importance of accurate and timely healthcare communication has never been more apparent. An article in the Lancet earlier this year concluded that “It is the rapid dissemination of trustworthy information… which is needed most during this period of uncertainty.”

We often talk in the health and wellbeing team at H+K about why we work in healthcare comms and the pandemic has brought this into sharp focus. Healthcare communications can truly save lives — by driving understanding of disease symptoms and transmission, helping overcome fear and uncertainty, creating behaviour change, and supporting healthcare professional-patient conversations thrust into the virtual world. COVID-19 has laid bare the best and worst of healthcare communications approaches. The sharp and simple ‘Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives’ slogan has been heralded as one of the most successful communications in modern political history, so much so that it was even thought to be too effective at convincing people to stay at home. Contrasted with the months of mixed messages and ever-shifting communications around wearing face masks.

For good or for bad, the COVID crisis offers a unique perspective for governments, healthcare systems and providers, pharmaceutical and health technology companies to review and adapt their future communications approaches. Here are 5 considerations for healthcare communications that will make the most difference for patients, families and societies during this pandemic and beyond:

Bottom line upfront
In a world where we are being bombarded with more health information than ever before, our communications need to learn from the ‘Bottom Line Up Front’ (BLUF) principle. Placing our takeaway conclusions and calls to action at the beginning rather than the end increases the likelihood of our audiences noticing and acting on our health communications messaging.

Precise words matter
Even seemingly small changes to health messages can make a big difference. When H+K’s behavioural science team tested different variations of coronavirus public health advice, they found that minor changes in language had a significant impact on how effective the messages were in changing behaviour.

Digital-first mindset
The coronavirus pandemic has catalysed the adoption of digital health technologies, with telemedicine systems that had languished for years, suddenly being implemented in a matter of weeks. Every aspect of how we communicate has changed and the new digital solutions being built today will be the standard for the healthcare communications of the future.

Don’t leave anyone behind
It’s no coincidence that the people who have been worst affected by coronavirus are the ones who had worse health outcomes before the pandemic. All health communications must not only recognise but actually act on the diverse factors that influence our health and the way in which we filter and understand health messages— our work, our level of education and income, our ethnic background, where we live and the many other social determinants of health.

Learn from the experts
People living with health conditions have a lot to teach us all about what effective communication looks like. Our work at H+K with people living with rare diseases has shown that their experiences of isolation, hospitalisation and dealing with risk, make them the real experts in communicating during these uncertain times.