There is no question that communication has always been a vital aspect of healthcare. At the same time, the rise of the internet and social media means the number of options to reach and help patients has never been higher. Conversely, there is also a wealth of alternative sources of information out there, many of which are unreliable or even deliberately propagate false information. The question is, how can healthcare providers utilize their own channels of communication to help ensure that their patients receive positive, accurate, and informative content that promotes good health?
In this article, we examine the different types of digital communication open to healthcare providers, the best ways to manage them to benefit patients, and the areas where they can be of most use. In addition, we also examine how nurses and other health professionals, particularly those working in smaller institutions, can learn about and learn to use digital communication tools to help patients and the importance of striking the right tone in all forms of communication.
Changing communication channels
Things have certainly changed in the field of healthcare communication over the last few decades or so. Whereas the grand physician was once the source of all knowledge (save, perhaps, for a dusty health encyclopedia on the shelves), today, a great many people will happily turn to the internet before asking their local doctor. Yet, while the tendency to look online for answers can in some cases lead to mistakes, misconceptions, and misunderstandings, the most forward-looking health providers are beginning to realize that digital communication tools—if used skilfully and responsibly—can be a valuable way to transmit a wide range of useful information to both patients and the general public.
While some larger healthcare institutions have dedicated digital communication managers and marketing offices, often the healthcare staff are also closely involved in maintaining the appropriate level of communication, providing expert advice, and helping to boost patient engagement and interaction. After all, in addition to raising public awareness and combating misinformation, this form of communication can also be used to promote engagement with patients and help manage complex administrative issues. So what kind of different tools are available?
In terms of digital tools, the main website of the health provider typically functions as the central point of communication between patients and all other stakeholders, including medical staff, suppliers, and external partners. In addition to providing basic information about the institution in question—such as the services offered, staff details, and contact and access information—the website often also functions as the registration point for an external patient management system and is frequently linked to an accompanying app.
Registering in the patient management system often enables patients to perform a wide range of operations, including booking appointments, downloading test results, and receiving SMS confirmations and reminders about consultations. Indeed, this kind of system is usually an essential tool for helping to maintain efficient operations. The patient management system, email databases, and other similar channels can also be used to elicit patient feedback to help improve the overall level of healthcare. In addition—providing the patient has given their consent, of course—these initial points of contact can also serve as a useful starting point for the health provider to begin a mutually beneficial digital dialogue with patients.
Indeed, the health provider’s main website typically also hosts blog posts and provides reliable information about people’s health, particularly in relation to the services offered by the institution. In this way—by presenting detailed articles on important medical topics from a trusted source—health providers can do a lot to combat misinformation commonly found online. The website is also one of the best ways to share general information about a wide range of medical issues, both through the website itself and via newsletters and social media channels.
In fact, social media can be an excellent tool for raising general awareness. For example, in the area of lifestyle and nutrition, patients or other followers on social media can receive positive and informative content from their trusted health provider about the best way to maintain a healthy mode of living and diet. Fitness is also another area where a positive contribution can be made, both by encouraging fitness and by sharing other people’s success stories.
Social media can also be used to run seasonal campaigns, where the health provider can offer topical information on a specific issue that is most pertinent at a particular time of year. Usually, these are provided before particular seasons of the year or big events in the calendar. For example, medical institutions often promote the flu vaccine or vaccines for other seasonal viruses such as COVID-19 in the autumn and early winter, while tropical diseases and relevant vaccinations—not to mention injury prevention—are perhaps more likely to be discussed in the summer months.
In addition, issues such as drunk driving and mental health might relate more to the holiday season—where incidence rates are higher—or at other times when data shows that people tend to be more vulnerable. In each case, by raising awareness and providing specific, evidence-backed medical advice, targeted, well-timed campaigns can make a real difference to people’s health and help keep them well-informed.
Social media and other digital communication tools can also be used to transmit targeted information to individual patients. Often, this may have a broader scope, such as a Facebook or Instagram campaign about a particular topic. For example, one targeted at young people encouraging them to use sunscreen when on holiday, or at older people related to maintaining a healthy lifestyle in retirement.
More direct communication channels can also be used to address specific concerns, such as informing a patient if they have missed an important check-up, sending them detailed information about how to prepare for an upcoming operation, or following the aftercare procedures once the operation is complete. In each case, the emphasis must be on providing patients with only useful information that is correctly presented. This is why all messages, whether presented on the website, in email, or through social media channels, must be carefully monitored to ensure that it is fully appropriate and never obtrusive.
The right message
Indeed, whether the health provider’s digital communication is managed by health professionals, the admin team, an external provider, or a combination of the above, it is absolutely essential that it is always respectful, non-sensationalist, and of the very highest quality. After all, the institution’s website and social media channels are often some of the most important sites of interaction that it will have with patients and the general public and can significantly positively or negatively impact the provider’s overall reputation. This is why all communication must be factual and accurate at all times, with a strong focus on only presenting objective, evidence-based facts, and with no room for speculation. Of course, an engaging, friendly tone is also important, while all information must be fully compliant with any relevant rules and regulations, both in medical terms and considering digital privacy laws.
If the tone is right and the information in question is presented in a factual, engaging, and easily accessible style, however, these digital tools can be extremely valuable in promoting good health among patients and in the general population. In addition to offering targeted advice to people, improving organization, and in some cases functioning as an important marketing tool, these channels can also give healthcare providers the chance to reach people who might otherwise not have access to the same information, or in some cases might be distracted by less reliable sources of information.
Naturally, as the importance of digital communication becomes ever more important, healthcare providers are increasingly looking to recruit medical staff who are comfortable with using a wide range of digital tools to not only promote better health awareness but also ensure a higher level of organization and communication with patients. As a result, there is often specific demand from providers for staff with previous experience of working with these kinds of tools.
Fortunately, there are more and more people looking to enter positions in the healthcare industry who already have experience in other fields, and who often bring a high level of expertise in the use of digital tools. In addition, there are specific online nursing programs for non nurses that enable you to qualify as a nurse in a shorter period of time if you already possess a bachelor’s degree in any other field. With an accelerated bachelor of science in nursing (ABSN) from the University of Indianapolis, for example, it is possible to qualify as a registered nurse in as little as one year.
This kind of program is specially designed to encourage well-educated individuals who have a lot to offer the nursing profession to gain the relevant qualifications and begin working as a nurse in the shortest possible time period. In addition to focusing on key nursing topics such as performing health assessments, transitional care in primary and population health, and professional nursing practices, graduates also emerge with a sophisticated understanding of both face-to-face and digital communication with patients. ABSN graduates also gain real-world experience through in-person clinical placements and two on-campus residencies, while the flexible online nature of the course means it can be completed in conjunction with a full or part-time position.
A crucial new tool
Of course, even beyond graduation, nurses and other healthcare professionals will likely have much to learn about these communication tools, particularly given the rapid rate of development in this area. Just to cite one example, the use of video calls to communicate with patients has gone, in the last five years or so, from being something completely out of the ordinary to almost standard operating procedure. While graduates will of course spend some time learning the new systems that they are faced with, unlike with other areas of healthcare, they might find that they are likely to assist senior professionals with some aspects of new technologies, particularly if they have previous experience from their past profession.
Either way, there is no question that when it comes to digital communication, all health professionals must maintain an open mind and be prepared to keep on learning as their career progresses in order to stay up-to-date. In addition to on-the-job training, peer-to-peer communication and experimentation with technology can also be useful, while there is always a wealth of online resources available to teach those who are willing to learn.
Education and engagement
Overall, while there is no question that the relationship and interaction between patients and nurses/doctors is invaluable and cannot be replaced, the wide variety of digital tools available today represents a clear opportunity to augment that interaction. Not only can social media, messaging services, and other tools help to ensure smoother operations and efficient patient management, but they can also be used to provide valuable information to patients. This can be more general, in the form of informative articles, blog or social media posts, or newsletters, or more specific, in terms of targeted information in relation to the specific situation of the patient in question.
To fully exploit the potential of the digital revolution, it is essential for not only backend staff, but also the frontline medical staff, to be comfortable, enthusiastic, and open-minded about using these kinds of tools. Indeed, most healthcare providers have an experienced, highly competent digital media team that works in close cooperation with healthcare professionals to ensure that patients have access to reliable, accurate, and engaging content. By doing so, in addition to attracting patients to their institution, health providers are also able to help ensure a healthier and better-informed society.