Thought Leadership

Ten COVID-19 vaccine considerations for hospital communicators

Ryan Colaianni
By Ryan Colaianni
posted Oct 30, 2020

Since COVID-19’s dramatic entrance on U.S. soil in March, we’ve hoped for an expedited vaccine process that can save lives and help our society’s economy and norms stabilize. Yet, the promise of a safe and effective vaccine is clouded by inconsistent information and conflicting timing projections — leaving many consumers and clinicians uncertain of who to trust, how and when the FDA will approve the vaccine, and how the global supply chain will handle the multi-billion-dose distribution.

We recently surveyed consumers to learn about when they expect a vaccine and who they’ll trust when it comes to determining its safety and effectiveness.

Download the findings report here.

In past months, our consumer research has shown that the public has held physicians and hospitals in high regard, considering them the most trusted source of information about COVID-19. Putting this unprecedented trust to good use, it’s time for health systems to take charge of providing effective communications to their team members and local communities about the COVID-19 vaccine once it is approved. If we fail, we risk prolonging this pandemic and eroding critical trust in vaccines leading to additional public health risks. If we succeed, we can galvanize our standing in communities as the undisputed source of trustworthy recommendations for community and public health.

Outlined below are several communications considerations that health systems should begin to prepare for in advance of a vaccine approval.

10 considerations for health systems in preparation for a vaccine

  1. “Waiting it out” is risky. The COVID-19 vaccine is bringing the entire category of vaccines to the front stage. Stumbling on your communications around the COVID-19 vaccine means risking the erosion of trust in routine vaccines as well. Now is the time to clearly and transparently communicate your access and distribution plans. Vaccine messaging and testing must work together.
  2. Hospitals are where the rubber will meet the road. Hospitals and health systems will bear the brunt of responsibility for meeting consumer’s needs and acting as the voice of truth. Consider all the questions you may receive related to access, who pays, and specific populations. Fight misinformation about the vaccine and all other COVID-19 related matters strongly, clearly, and widely.
  3. Consumer opinions vary greatly. When it comes to the trust of pharmaceutical companies, the CDC, the White House, and even the FDA, your audience is not homogenous. Some will automatically trust the first approved COVID-19 vaccine, and others won’t. Messages will need to be tailored to your various audiences.
  4. Provider organizations must operate as one voice. The clinical, communications, and operations sides of the house should all be working together. As communicators, we must seek firsthand information about the planned rollout from the front lines.
  5. Staff buy-in for health system policies will vary. All health systems will have employees who align with the health system’s policies on the COVID-19 vaccine, and those who resist. Health system communicators should identify the “champions” of their policies and amplify their voices internally and to their communities. Front line employees may be the most influential voices your patients will hear when deciding whether or not to get the vaccine.
  6. Trust in the safety and efficacy of the vaccine is low (and steadily dropping) across the country. Hospitals and health systems must share their own perspectives on the science and efficacy — sometimes going beyond what the CDC and FDA might be putting out there.
  7. The expertise of spokespeople matters more than ever. Plan your spokesperson strategy now and always put medical professionals at the forefront when discussing the vaccine.
  8. Amid a hyper-partisan split in trust of the federal government, consumers look local. Think “local first” and partner with community leaders to enhance credibility and broaden the reach of your communications. Be proactive with local media.
  9. The flu will muddy the waters. Consider the impact of the pandemic coinciding with the flu and its similar symptoms. At intake, patients may need to be screened for both. Plan ahead for communicating potential pauses in elective procedures or additional visitor restrictions.
  10. The whole thing is political. Health system communicators must balance political risks with public health imperatives. Strategic messaging cannot replicate that of an annual flu vaccination campaign, nor should it focus on public safety or economic recovery — instead, it should focus on storytelling through healthy individuals who have been impacted by the virus.  

We will continue to share what we’re hearing and success stories from the industry through our weekly COVID-19 recommendations newsletter. Subscribe to stay on top of our upcoming research and insights related to COVID-19 vaccine communications.