Lessons Learned from Doctors on Making Communications More Effective

As COVID-19 continues to disrupt our daily lives, people are eager for accurate and reassuring communications on how best to protect the safety of individuals, families, and communities. In the rush to present the latest developments, inconsistent messages occur, and misinformation spreads.

Lately, the drug hydroxychloroquine has made headlines as a possible treatment for COVID-19, though questions abound as to its safety and efficacy. Information about this drug is presented differently depending on what day, political leader, or news channel is reporting. But, there are lessons to be learned for effective communications strategies. To really resonate with audiences, communicators need more than a presentation of facts to effectively reach and reassure.

The lack of consistency in communications from journalists and political leaders is especially confusing and worrisome to the patients already prescribed hydroxychloroquine. These inconsistencies could be because facts are unknown, or that findings fail to support a desired political narrative. Medical professionals are increasingly forced to deal with dire predictions, rumors, and other misinformation from concerned patients.

The recent focus on hydroxychloroquine has raised the attention of thousands of patients and their doctors who take the drug for non-coronavirus reasons. News reports and online discussions about the drug’s benefits, side effects, dangers, and even rumored shortages are causing alarm among many patients who had taken it for years without incident. Physician’s phones are ringing as questions and uncertainty abound. Their responses provide a valuable look into how to effectively reach an audience.

In an interview, Dr. Robert Levin, a practicing rheumatologist and president of the Alliance for Transparent & Affordable Prescriptions explained that hydroxychloroquine has been prescribed by rheumatologists for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and lupus for the past several decades. He shared how patients have been contacting him and his peers to ask about the safety and availability of their prescriptions.

“COVID-19 is a new disease and we are all just learning about disease manifestations and potential treatments, which may or may not involve hydroxychloroquine,” Dr. Levin explains. “This has little if any relevance to the patients who are effectively using this treatment for systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other autoimmune diseases.”

Dr. Levin’s counsel to these patients is to first understand their concerns before offering advice. “I must understand how a patient feels before I begin to explain how we have used this drug for long term therapy of our patients safely, for decades – but, I listen first,” he explained.

If a doctor is dismissive of feelings or concerns, the patient will be skeptical. The facts do matter – but as Dr. Levin explains. “it is the connection with the patient that allows the facts to resonate.” Despite a patient’s positive experiences with hydroxychloroquine, the persistent rumors of shortages and reports of side effects have many worried.

Dr. Levin’s approach provides an example for all communicators to speak to the concerns of your audience to be effective. In this case, simply presenting facts about hydroxychloroquine is insufficient.

Effective communication requires an emotional connection. Understanding what your audiences think is good, understanding how they feel is valuable. How can you apply the lessons of the doctor-patient relationship to your communications strategy?

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