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COVID-19, communication, and consumerism: What healthcare organizations need to know

If nothing else, 2020 has resoundingly affirmed the importance of effective public-health communication. Accurately informing the public about the risks of the coronavirus and making a persuasive case for behavior change have likely saved tens of thousands of American lives.

There is also little doubt as to who has been responsible for much of this communication work. In service of their communities, healthcare organizations have been outspoken champions of the truth.

That is not to suggest, however, that their work has been easy. Even today, nearly a year into the pandemic, leaders in healthcare face considerable headwinds when it comes to keeping their communities safe and informed.

NRC Health’s 2021 Healthcare Consumer Trends Report explores what some of these headwinds might be—and how healthcare organizations might best overcome them.

What the public believes

Credibility is an essential part of reaching the public. But recently, public trust has been remarkably scarce.

Consumer trust in traditional media is at an all-time low, with 56% of Americans believing that journalists/reporters intentionally mislead the public. The online world is faring even worse, with only 35% of Americans believing what they see online. Even the government’s messaging is met with skepticism, as eight out of ten Americans believe that misinformation from or about government is a major problem.

Such a degree of doubt complicates even the most straightforward messaging. For public-health campaigns, it can spell disaster. The widespread mistrust likely explains, at least in part, why a substantial proportion of the population continues to believe that COVID-19 is a hoax—even after 400,000 deaths.

Whom the public trusts

While the credibility gap is a serious problem for many public-facing entities, one source remains well-trusted: local healthcare organizations.

NRC Health research has consistently found that healthcare consumers invest considerable trust in their local health systems.

This is true even about somewhat controversial subjects, like COVID-19. On that front, 59% of consumers believe what healthcare organizations have to say—compared with just 19% who have faith in what the federal government reports.

Such a mandate of trust puts healthcare organizations in a unique position.

On the one hand, it represents a privilege. Health systems are singularly capable of shifting healthcare consumers’ perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors—an advantage that other business sectors might envy.

On the other hand, it also burdens healthcare organizations with a sober responsibility. Since they have the most authoritative word on public-health issues, health systems must be exceedingly careful with what they communicate, and how.

It’s not enough to simply produce the right message, or to adhere to the scientific consensus on public-health issues. Organizations must also make the effort to both reach and persuade their customers to take meaningful steps to protect their health.

How should this be done?

Making good on consumer confidence

Thankfully, consumer data can guide the way on effective messaging. And it suggests that, while traditional media communications remain important, social media may be the most influential venue for health systems to use to reach their consumers.

The internet is a potent guiding force in consumers’ healthcare decisions. Google handles approximately 70,000 health-related search queries per minute, and 72% of all Americans have some kind of social-media profile. With that degree of saturation, it behooves every healthcare organization to design a comprehensive digital-media strategy.

Social media, in particular, is a promising place to start. According to NRC Health’s research, 70% of healthcare consumers expressed an interest in getting at least some of their healthcare information through social media, and 62% of consumers said they trust the information they get from social media, so long as it comes directly from healthcare providers.

But organizations should not mistake this eagerness for permission to be intrusive. Consumers are quite clear on their preferences: 66% of them said they do not want sponsored posts or promoted content to appear on their feeds.

Instead, they want to discover this content on their own terms. They want healthcare content that they can interact with in their own time, with their own search queries.

Health systems would do well to respect this desire for autonomy, and field their own internal experts to produce large, authoritative, and SEO-optimized libraries of content.

It’s the best way to reach consumers—by giving them a chance to reach out first.

More from the consumer’s perspective

This expression of independence is just part of the larger trend of emergent consumerism we’re seeing in 2021.

If you want to learn more about what this might mean for your organization, you can find out—in NRC Health’s 2021 Healthcare Consumer Trends Report.

The full report uses the country’s most comprehensive healthcare-consumer database to explore the most urgent trends confronting healthcare organizations today. In addition to exploring more of social media’s implications for health systems, the full report includes:

– An analysis of the emergence of wearable technology

– The factors driving deferral of care appointments, both before and during the pandemic

– Why consumer health brand loyalty is declining—and what organizations can do about it

– And more!

Take the first step toward a more complete understanding of your customers. Download the full 2021 Healthcare Consumer Trends Report today.