Coronavirus messaging has changed rapidly over the past few weeks — and will continue to evolve as the situation progresses. As healthcare communicators grapple with the daily (sometimes hourly) changes, ensure that your content consistently speaks with sensitivity toward high-risk groups.
Compassionate Coronavirus Messaging for High-Risk Groups
Public discourse has swung wildly: We went from “as long as you are young and healthy, you’ll be fine” to dire warnings about potentially needing to ration ventilators and decide who gets access to scarce resources.
Both extremes marginalize and devalue the lives of those at highest risk: people age 60 and older and people with chronic health conditions.
These two high-risk groups are a large part of your audience. In 2018:
- 70 million Americans were 60 or older, according to the Administration for Community Living
- 6 in 10 Americans live with at least one chronic condition, according to CDC
These high-risk individuals are also those most likely to seek out information about coronavirus. So, when your audience turns to you for healthcare information during this time of stress and uncertainty, make sure they find empathetic (not dismissive) messaging. Follow our tips to make your coronavirus content more inclusive of high-risk individuals.
1. Use inclusive language
Language like “only the elderly and physically vulnerable are at high risk” attempts to reassure the young and healthy at the expense of the elderly or chronically ill. This messaging:
- Is detrimental to the public health goal of encouraging community responsibility for slowing the rate of infection
- Negatively impacts the mental health of high-risk individuals
Patient advocate Dawn Gibson explains that such language lacks compassion and fails to recognize the potential long-lasting ripple effects of severe illness. Preventing panic is an important aspect of crisis communication, but so is empathy.
Charis Hill, a disabled activist living with ankylosing spondylitis, suggests this inclusive language on their blog: “COVID-19, like other viruses and respiratory diseases, impacts immunocompromised & immunosuppressed folks at higher numbers and with more severe symptoms. While many will only experience mild symptoms, it’s important to remember that a large percentage of the population is more vulnerable to the virus and relies on public responsibility to reduce the chances it will spread.”
2. Recognize and provide concrete information about different risk levels
Now that the World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — a pandemic, messages have taken on a new level of urgency. Yet it is still important to acknowledge that risk level isn’t universal — it varies by many factors, including location, age, health history and occupation.
Inclusive messaging that recognizes these varying risk levels helps establish credibility and builds trust with your audience. While an ever-growing number of companies are sending out information about coping with coronavirus, people over age 60 and those with chronic conditions are still struggling to find information pertaining to their higher level of risk.
How can your organization provide reliable information to your readers?
Link to reputable resources
In early March, CDC created a page for people at risk for serious illness from COVID-19. This page includes suggestions for preparedness actions along with additional safety recommendations for high-risk individuals.
While the CDC guidance is useful and necessary, the page only mentions increased risk to older adults and those with heart disease, diabetes or lung disease. The CDC page does not address additional risk factors, such as:
- Having certain autoimmune disorders
- Having certain chronic conditions
- Undergoing immunosuppressant treatments like chemotherapy or biologics
CDC’s latest guidance for mitigation strategies for Santa Clara County, California, lists 10 types of conditions that may increase the risk of severe illness from coronavirus.
Follow the lead of patient organizations
Organizations that serve patients with specific conditions are well-positioned to provide targeted guidance on preparedness and risk level. CreakyJoints, a digital community for patients with arthritis and their caregivers, is an emerging leader in this regard.
CreakyJoints is actively compiling comprehensive health guidance from rheumatologists, patient insights and FAQs from the community. They also created resources to help patients with arthritis find the information they need about how arthritis impacts COVID-19 risk, including:
- A March 5 Twitter chat on coronavirus and chronic disease
- A Chronic Illness Patient’s Guide to Coronavirus
- The #HighRiskCovid19 campaign — to “put a face to those who are vulnerable to the coronavirus” — started by patient advocates
Organizations must also strike a balance between providing condition-specific information and emphasizing the need for people to consult with their doctors to assess individual risk. For example, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society provides information related to disease-modifying therapies during the pandemic but also encourages patients to consult with their healthcare providers.
3. Practice active listening and learn from patients’ expertise
This coronavirus may be novel, but prevention protocols are not. People with compromised immune systems are well-versed in infection control measures such as frequent handwashing, social distancing and precautionary isolation. Disability activists and patient organizations have been discussing preventive measures and offering valuable insights for weeks.
The experience of living with a disability or a chronic illness gives these individuals expertise that healthcare providers may not have:
- On Twitter, activists who are chronically ill or disabled are sharing tips on coping with isolation and illness, from Matthew Cortland’s #AdviceToTheNewlySick to Sarah Blahovec’s #CripIsolationTips.
- In 5 Things to Know About Coronavirus and People With Disabilities, Forbes contributor Andrew Pulrang explains how the coronavirus pandemic will impact many aspects of disabled people’s lives, beyond their health.
Build Trust in Your Brand
As the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. increases and the containment measures get more severe, a growing number of people will turn to healthcare organizations for information.
Ensure your messaging is inclusive of all risk groups, so you provide everyone in your diverse audience with the lifesaving information they need. This approach will also strengthen your audience engagement and establish you as a reliable source for healthcare guidance — now and in the future.
Be Clear During COVID-19