The Medical City

Communicating in times of crisis

Martin P Samson

Martin P Samson

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I am a lawyer by education and profession. In 2012, I was hired by The Medical City to be its Chief Legal Officer and by 2018, I was offered the opportunity to be its Chief Operating Officer. A position that helped me discover my true passion.

Winston Churchill once said never let a good crisis go to waste. The wisdom behind that statement is perhaps never truer or more applicable today than it did 76 years ago as he uttered that now famous statement at the end of WW II. As the world helplessly grapples with the pandemic, it is increasingly clear that every country, international body, and corporation worldwide were blindsided by it and are now requiring an overhaul of the textbook business contingency and recovery plan it put together. No organisation, to this day, can claim that their business continuity program considered the crippling effects of the pandemic on its operations. In fact, I suspect that no corporation, no matter how sophisticated, can say that their business continuity plan effectively helped them weather the pandemic's bleakest impact. As for the Philippines, a study on the adverse effect of the pandemic conducted by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on four countries showed that the pandemic's worst effect was felt here among the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) and their employees. On a global scale, determining the total number of businesses worldwide that permanently shut down because of COVID-19 is unimaginable. In the US alone, in 2020 that number is nearly 100,000. With the surge of infection continuing to rise unabated in most parts of the world, the figures for 2021 will surely be greater.

Even first world countries with well funded government agencies solely dedicated to forecasting the coming of the next catastrophic infectious diseases have been caught flat-footed by the virus. With infection figures at more than 220 million worldwide with casualties of approximately 4.55 million and multiple mutations that seem to defy and penetrate vaccine protection, experts to this day are still trying to understand how best to outrun this disease. While the number of waves or surges that can be expected is still the subject of debates. One thing is clear, COVID-19 and its deadly impact will not be behind us anytime soon. Suffice it to say, this is a pretty darn serious situation. The kind of "good crisis" in some grotesque sense, that Churchill may have been alluding to.

A crisis in communication

Nothing creates profound fear in people's hearts more than the unknown. Especially when all that is publicly available so far is either life threatening or life ending. Such is the dire condition that practically accompanied eventual lockdowns and border closures all over the world as covid ravaged relentlessly every corner of the globe. For the Philippines, the imposition of the world's longest and possibly strictest lockdown, as its government's sole strategic monumental response, started on March 15, 2020. Such action coupled with the newness of the virus and the scarcity of accurate information from reliable sources on how to effectively deal and manage COVID-19 infection, especially in the healthcare setting, cast the darkest shadow of paranoia one can imagine, on the population.

Amidst the unlikely scenario of this horrific public health crisis, we at The Medical City (TMC) found an opportunity to flourish where others only embraced despair. Having become acutely aware that the lack of valuable communication allowed confusion and panic to proliferate in the community or worse, that the information vacuum was fast filling up with misinformation. The Medical City set about furiously developing relevant content in what may well be the greatest number of creative communication materials it ever produced on a single public health subject matter within a short period of time, in its more than 50-year history. In a mere 18 months, TMC generated and shared 536 materials in various formats through all its social media platforms to reach the widest audience possible.

These communications have influenced some of the country's big private healthcare institutions as well as government action, to some degree. But more importantly, TMC's communication campaign from the beginning to this day helped to fill a gaping void for a community thirsty for valuable information to ease their worst fears about this virus.

At the height of the first surge, private hospitals acted independently of other institutions in dealing with the overwhelming number of patients with COVID-19, arriving at their emergency rooms. This isolated approach did not give people a full capture of how badly the situation was deteriorating. To paint the big picture, TMC was the first private healthcare institution to publicly announce that its COVID-19 emergency room was filled to capacity and could no longer accommodate patients. This move was later followed by other big private hospitals. And for the first time, the public was collectively made aware how serious and untenable the situation was fast becoming at healthcare institutions, public or private. It underscored the demand for appropriate government agencies to participate and conduct a more coordinated approach instead of abandoning private healthcare institutions to work it out on their own. This eventually catalysed the national government to create a unified system for managing among others, emergency room demand for patients with COVID-19. TMC was also first to publish the census of its COVID-19 cases and other relevant statistics to highlight the urgent need for people to do social distancing and practice all other proper safety protocols.

While others lament that social media made a significant impact on spreading fear and panic related to the COVID-19 outbreak, The Medical City used its official Facebook page (https://www.facebook. com/TheMedicalCity) to keep people safe and informed during the crisis. Full-length versions of all the materials posted on Facebook were even uploaded to our YouTube channel (for the videos) and the TMC website (for the articles).

The Major Themes

The communication campaign focused on the following major segments; (1) AskTMC (2) Safe Zone for All (3) DOCumentaries (4) Get Vaccinated (5) I Am Vaccinated.

AskTMC and parts of DOCumentaries featured TMC's own infectious disease expert, Dr. Karl Henson, answering frequently asked questions from an information-starved public. For the first time, people were able to listen and see an actual expert talk about their worst fears on the coronavirus and provide answers based on expert medical opinion. The goal was to create the country's own version of a Dr. Anthony Fauci, an expert in infectious diseases, who provided reliable information to correct public confusion.

COVID-19 is not the only pandemic

As the first surge waned, the Safe Zone for all messaging was created to sound the alarm on the growing number of the unhealthy but non-COVID population who continued to stay away from hospitals out of fear, neglecting much needed medical follow ups and treatments. A recipe for a second pandemic, this time from stroke, heart attack, end-stage cancer, and other illnesses that are otherwise manageable if treated early.

TMC supported its call to return to hospitals by creating the 2 systems within 1 hospital complex. This allowed non-COVID patients to come for medical treatment without fear of exposure. Other institutions followed shortly. This initiative, recognised by PR Asia for Best PR Campaign for Healthcare and Pharmaceuticals and Best COVID-19 Related Response, bested 400 other entries from across Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the ANZ regions.

When vaccination became a reality, TMC was at the forefront in encouraging the public to get vaccinated. Its "Get Vaccinated" and "I am Vaccinated" campaigns were produced with individuals speaking in several dialects to ensure the widest reach possible in a nation of 7,000 islands and multiple dialects. The material was so innovative, the Department of Health (DOH) borrowed it for their own purposes.

Then until now, knowing what we didn't know was just as important and we made sure never to be reckless with the information we shared. TMC pushed the envelope towards helping people live with the reality of COVID-19 but it was always careful to always be facts based.

Did we make a difference? At the end of 2020, a share of voice analysis revealed that five out of every 10 individuals who read any information or watched news about COVID-19 will say they saw a The Medical City content on the subject. Among all pieces of content published about the leading hospitals’ response to the pandemic, The Medical City garnered the biggest share of voice. Bigger than four of the country's other big hospitals combined. Our online engagement metrics have also seen all time high numbers, with 1.8 million minutes of COVID content viewed, 40 million reaches of which 507,000 are new, and 66,900 new unique conversations generated.

As we try to predict how this COVID narrative ends, The Medical City's story will not be nearly complete without including the individuals who tirelessly work because they care, our medical and non-medical frontliners. From the beginning of the pandemic, TMC has proudly proclaimed that in its hospital are the bravest and the kindest people you will ever meet - that message conveys the unspoken truth about healthcare frontliners, and the burden now forced upon them to bear.

This crisis continues and the end is not nearly in sight. But when you hold people's feet to the fire, in this case, organisations, some will burn but others turn golden.

--Issue 54--