Hospitals discuss Ebola online—even when they don’t have the patients


The city of Akron, Ohio, experienced an outbreak of panic in October after the media revealed that a Dallas nurse had flown into Akron just before she was diagnosed with Ebola.

One school closed because a student’s mother had had contact with the nurse, Amber Joy Vinson, and people were shunning businesses Vinson had visited.

As Akron Children’s Hospital prepared for the remote possibility of an Ebola patient, communicators considered a question: Should they address the disease online? After all, nobody wanted to leave the false impression the hospital was treating a case.

Akron Children’s went ahead and published Facebook posts and two articles, one of them titled “How to talk to your kids about Ebola.” Thus the hospital joined others nationwide in offering online and social media content about Ebola—even though they weren’t actually treating anyone suffering from the West African disease.

From an Illinois hospital chain with a brand journalism site to a medical school in Virginia, organizations have been stepping in to allay public fears and provide news on their websites and in social media.

At Akron Children’s, the post on talking to kids led the Akron Beacon Journal to feature an interview with a child psychologist on the topic, and TV followed up. The New Jersey department of education republished the post.

Andrea Joliet, Akron Children’s director of public relations and marketing, said that while the focus was internal in preparing and informing employees, it was important to educate the public about an issue that was in the news.

“If they happen to see something on the TV news or in the paper, they’re going to ask a lot of questions,” Joliet says.

Designated an Ebola treatment center

Many hospitals without Ebola patients must address the illness anyway, because they have agreed to be among the 44 facilities the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has designated as treatment centers for the disease.

CDC works with the listed hospitals, training staff and preparing them for an Ebola patient, says Abbigail Tumpey, a CDC associate director for communications science. CDC specialists have also met with communications staff to help them think through, “What are you going to need to be prepared for from the communications perspective both externally and internally?” she says.

There’s a reason this is needed. At many hospitals that announce they would treat patients with the disease, “people start canceling appointments at these facilities,” Tumpey says. “I think there was a fair amount of fear.”

Sound communication can help allay fears, though. One hospital on the list of 44, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, hasn’t seen any cancellations, says John Pontarelli, associate vice president of public relations.

“I think it had to do with the fact that Rush moved very quickly, very early when this came up to prepare people, to communicate,” he says.

Rush had an Ebola scare in October when a patient coming from Liberia landed in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport with Ebola-like symptoms. (The patient turned out not to have the disease.) The hospital opened up on the matter in a story about two of its nurses who treated the incoming patient and the extreme precautions they took.

Rush’s writer quoted one of the nurses as saying, “It was very humanizing. You hear, ‘Ebola, Ebola, Ebola,’ but there’s a person behind Ebola.”

Rush also produced a video on “How Rush Has Prepared for Ebola.” Designed to reassure potential patients and the public, it addresses the ways Ebola patients could arrive (either by ambulance or through the emergency department) and how they would be isolated.

Rush posted an article on “How we are keeping our patients, visitors and caregivers safe.” And the center also pegged Ebola concerns to flu shots. Another story is titled, “Ebola? Worry about the flu instead. Why a flu shot should be atop your health to-do list.”

Noting that about 36,000 deaths in the U.S. annually are attributed to influenza, the story notes that catching Ebola actually is hard to do. “Contrast that discrepancy with the flu; people don’t think much about it, even though flu cases sweep the country every year,” the article states.

However the public may react, Rush isn’t having second thoughts about the decision to become an Ebola treatment center. Health care workers believe it is part of their mission.

“This is why we’re here,” Pontarelli says. “We treat the most complicated cases of illness around Chicago, and we have particularly broad, deep infectious disease expertise.”

The Johns Hopkins Hospital has likewise agreed to treat Ebola patients, and it has a hub on its website devoted to the topic. When the crisis hit, staffers worked nights and weekends for about six weeks to create multimedia content, according to Kim Hoppe, director of public relations and corporate communications.

For example, there is a story and video on a staff team that developed an improved suit for Ebola caregivers and an article on an online tool, designed by Johns Hopkins biomedical engineers, that could speed up the creation of new drugs to treat or prevent Ebola virus infections.

Another article features a San Diego company that appeared to have a cure for Ebola, noting the firm’s roots in Johns Hopkins. And Johns Hopkins informed its readership about a student who traveled to Liberia just before the outbreak to study violence and ended up staying and joining the fight against Ebola.

“Where many would have cut and run, Endow not only remained on foreign soil for five months, he would risk his life to become an integral cog in a nationwide effort to stem the spread of a virus that has killed thousands and threatens to kill many thousands more,” the article states.

All told, the pieces of content are “too many to count,” Hoppe reports, and they are meant to inform journalists, patients, the community, 41,000-plus staff members, peers at other institutions, journalists and others.

Involved in the effort were physicians, nurses, business leaders and other experts, along with Web designers, social media experts, internal communicators, videographers, writers, photographers, and others. The team worked nights and weekends for six weeks to get the content up.

“We worked with our leadership team to identify key experts and tried to minimize the number of people weighing in on any particular piece,” Hoppe says. “We also established daily calls for the work team so everyone knew who was working on what and where key assets were in the development process, allowing us to share information quickly.”

Ebola comms amid false alarms

Another Chicago-area provider, Advocate Health Care, also had a false alarm for Ebola at one of its hospitals. It has also discussed the disease in three articles pegged to Ebola on its brand journalism site, health enews. The stories quote Dr. James Malow, infection-control specialist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago.

The site began covering the disease in August with a piece titled “What’s the risk of Ebola in the U.S.?” A more recent Ebola-pegged story also dealt with the influenza angle: “Why getting your flu shot should be top priority.”

The article quotes Malow as saying, “Ebola is an incredibly dangerous disease and needs to be taken seriously. There is no cure and the death rate in Africa is now up to 50 percent. However, here in the U.S., I’m much more concerned about the flu than Ebola.”

Vince Pierri, public affairs manager at Advocate, says it was a delicate balance to communicate on the issue. Health enews didn’t want to jump in on a media frenzy. Yet Ebola was the top health topic in the nation for weeks.

“It’s something that everybody was talking about,” Pierri says. “And for health enews we always want to be timely and relevant, and we thought that to not put something out there would be the wrong way to go.”

Touting doctor expertise

Not every Ebola page has to be a full-fledged brand journalism production. Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Va., created a quick webpage offering videos and other expertise on the topic. The site also includes a training presentation by one of its doctor experts for health care providers.

Eastern Virginia is unlike most medical schools in that it doesn’t own a hospital, nor is it owned by one, says Vincent Rhodes, director of marketing and communications. The school works with a local children’s hospital and Veterans Administration and navy hospitals, and is relied upon for its faculty expertise.

As Ebola surged in the news, the medical school’s experts were much in demand on local TV stations and in the daily newspaper. One faculty member is a former navy expert on infectious diseases, Rhodes says. So the medical school produced videos on the topic to share that knowledge.

“We just felt like we’ve got this knowledge,” Rhodes says. “We can help calm people down, hopefully, so we ought to be talking about it.”

Ubicare, a company that helps hospitals connect with patients electronically, designed interactive content on Ebola for the New Jersey hospital AtlantiCare, one of Ubicare’s customers. An Ebola information page offered details on the disease and offered a doctor’s perspective.

An interactive Ebola question

There was also a questionnaire, emailed to AtlantiCare’s subscription list, that asks, “Which of these statements about the Ebola virus is most accurate?” The choices were A) you can’t get Ebola through the air, B) you can’t get it through water, C) you can’t get it through food, or D) all three.

Click through to the answer page, and it explains: “ALL 3. Ebola virus can be transmitted only through direct contact (via broken skin or mucous membranes) with infected blood or bodily fluids.”

AtlantiCare posted the information because “as thought leaders in their community, they wanted to connect with patients past, present, and future, and community people, to let them know they were on top of what was in the news,” says UbiCare Chief Executive Betsy Weaver.

The interactive approach helps people cut through “too much information.” Twenty-one percent of those who received the email followed the link.

Ubicare has over 200 clients in the U.S. and Europe. Some of the hospitals in the areas where there were Ebola scares are Ubicare customers, but nobody apart from AtlantiCare wanted to run the interactive feature.

“They’re very risk-averse, and they don’t want in any way to stimulate more fear and miscommunication,” Weaver says. “So they’re very, very careful in what they put it out and when they put it out.”

Bolstered by the feds

CDC in Atlanta has done extensive communications through the Ebola section of its website, and much of its content targets the 45 percent of its visitors who are health care workers, says Carol Crawford, chief of the digital media branch of the division of public affairs. Some 85 partners are syndicating to CDC’s health care content to their intranets for their own staff.

Social media is a key means of reaching the public, including Twitter chats and Facebook Q&As with scientists. The organization put out over 4,000 messages during the months the disease was in the news.

“We consider it really critical to helping with misinformation and fear,” Crawford says.

The Web- and social media-based communications strategy allowed CDC to expand its reach enormously.

Says Crawford: “It’s absolutely critical that CDC plays a role in getting out fact-based information on Ebola, and doing it digitally is a must these days.”


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