Health outbreak issues & crisis management.

Humans and, in particular, older people are vulnerable to disease. Illness, not taxes, is a certain fact of life.

Every health or aged care provider will face a health outbreak at a facility they manage at some stage.

When there is an outbreak such as gastroenteritis or influenza, providers implement an outbreak response, with procedures for hygiene, food handling, isolating infected residents and reporting. For example, the Gastro-Info Outbreak Coordinators Handbook, published by the Department of Health, guides aged care facilities with an appropriate outbreak response to gastroenteritis.

Most health service and aged care providers, however, do not have a response system that includes strategic and tactical communication to staff, residents, families, neighbours and the media. It is counter intuitive when we consider the alarm disease creates, the blame apportioned (no matter the circumstances) and the business impacts of staff resignations and regulatory intervention.

Let’s consider an analogy.

A person is well informed and knows, when they get sick, to call a doctor. The doctor prescribes medication. The person learns from the experience and, while recovering, they eat well or take supplements. As a preventative measure, they incorporate positive health goals into their daily lives.

Organisations should manage health outbreaks in the same way:

  • Prepare for the outbreak of known diseases.
  • Respond in a planned and organised way.
  • Recover by using the opportunity to build a stronger and more resilient organisation.

An issues and crisis management strategy and response procedures not only protect the company’s hard earned reputation, they underpin a resilient facility management team and stakeholder support network.

Most importantly, communication handled efficiently reduces the anxiety, confusion and, ultimately, health of the people in care, as well as their families. We should never underestimate the importance of wellbeing to clinical health outcomes.

Leading aged care providers realise that when there is a health outbreak, the safe operation of the facility is questioned. What will the company say and how will it act to demonstrate competency and control? Initiating health procedure 47a will not be enough!

Considered in context, when there is a health outbreak, the community suffers. Health and aged care providers are a community asset – their very presence provides a sense of strength, insurance and comfort among local people. There is a sense of collective pride in the care we show for the old and the infirm.

That is why, when a provider is perceived to have failed, people are indignant and outrage is easy for the media to stoke. Private providers are painted as placing profit before lives, public providers are cast as not meeting the needs of we, the taxpayers, who fund them.

Leading aged care providers see their aged care facility through these glasses. They integrate their emergency responses with their public relations responses, focusing on the relationships critical to the facility’s safe operation.

When developing issues and crisis communication strategies, we integrate processes and responsibilities with operational responses. We base our approach on the World Health Organisation (WHO) outbreak communication guidelines, which have four guiding principles.

1. Develop trust

A lack of trust hinders and organisation’s ability to control behaviour response during an outbreak. Public panic is rare when the community has been adequately informed.

2. Announce early

It is difficult to hide an outbreak in today’s globalised world. Leading aged care providers focus on building trust and transparency rather than cover-up. Early announcement may even assist in the containment of an outbreak.

3. Understand the public

Transparency with stakeholders facilitates the development of trust and allows for free flowing information in a two way conversation.

4. Plan ahead

The advantages of transparency, early announcement and trust must be weighed against the disadvantages of inadequate information and a risk of making the outbreak appear worse than it actually is. Target audiences, key messages, channels, materials and staff member or agency responsibilities can all be planned in advance . Planning demonstrate to employees that they are not exposed and minimises the risk that poor decisions made under pressure escalate the issue to crisis point.

If you are a health or aged care service provider, accept that an outbreak will happen. Start planning the management of issues.

Like that trip to the doctor, it will become a natural part of living strong and well. And, like the person who cares for their health and wellbeing, you will be respected for managing the impact you have on others.

Read more articles on issues management.

Talk to us about issues and crisis management planning.

Troubling but beautiful. The picture above is of gastroenteritis.