Is it time for Chief Medical Communication Officers? It certainly seems so.
For the past 2 ½ years, I have served as the Executive Director of the COVID Task Force for the Piedmont Healthcare System in the state of Georgia. With more than 30,000 employees and 22 medical campuses across the state, Piedmont is the largest single healthcare provider in Georgia.
Like all healthcare systems in the world, we have undergone a traumatic trial with the COVID-19 pandemic, both leading and at times scrambling, through five variants, each of which presented its own unique set of challenges. It wasn’t until the fourth surge, of the Delta variant, however, that the medical and scientific community began to fully understand the importance of effective communication and the grand scope and platform of those wishing to erode trust in the medical systems, (or simply voicing concerns and questions out loud to millions on their social media platforms), sowing doubt and confusion.
The results were the same. Slow uptake in vaccines, fewer receiving the first booster, a further drop for the second booster and several missed opportunities to reach herd immunity because of laggard immunizations but rapid virus mutations, further fueling the social media “I told you so” frenzy. Make no mistake, this was a pandemic largely driven and undermined by large social media platforms.
It wasn’t until very late in the game during this fourth surge that physicians and scientists began hitting back and directly taking on false claims, but it was too little too late. We lacked the breadth of megastars and politicians, and the country was entrenched in their beliefs, while algorithms of social media continued to further feed and direct toward more of whatever you just entertained or browsed.
Add to that the general apathy of the public in science as a whole, and the perception of doctors and scientists as boring or ‘smart misfits’ on social media platforms designed for entertainment, shock, awe and drama, and well, you see where I’m going with this. Here we are.
Medical Communications is a nuanced skill that requires a high level of emotional IQ as well as intellectual IQ. One must fully and completely understand all of the scientific facts, then not only act as a translator in providing the information to the masses, but connect with that audience. We used to excuse those in medicine with very low translational skills and/or desire as having a poor bedside manner. In other words, they were rude, off-putting, provided short and hard-to-understand information, left the room quickly and didn’t seem to care whether you, as the patient, followed the flow of health information or not.
Additionally, we have also seen the damage that can be caused when large agencies have poor communication skills despite brilliant doctors, scientists and bioanalysts focused on the effort as we have watched with dismay as the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) and other governmental agencies have struggled, not with data and information, but with communication of the data and information.
During the pandemic, I created a social media series called The Stairwell Chronicles. It can be found @drjaynemorgan on IG, Twitter, YouTube and also on LinkedIn at Dr. Jayne Morgan. In these short video vignettes (where I actually sit on the stairs), there is an explanation of specific medical information in an easy-to-understand format, with all of the information already gleaned and processed. No hard-to-understand websites, no searching for all the answers.
These have developed a cult following and have highlighted the need for doctors and hospitals to permeate medical care with a specific role of Chief of Medical Communications. A thoughtful doctor with a high acumen who is a hybrid of both the medical and scientific community and with practiced speaking and translation skills as well as the all-too-prevalent media skills and community engagement.
What can be achieved by such a person?
- Improve patient outcomes
- Increase patient satisfaction
- Protect public and patients
- Influence change
- Stimulate awareness
- Introduce and discuss new medical therapies
- Provide responses to medical information
- Engender trust
- Create positive dialogue
- Establish credibility
Stanford University has recognized the critical nature of this endeavor and currently offers a course, and Brigham and Women’s has opened an entire division dedicated to medical communication strategies. With the rise of the anti-science movement, the disaster that has been COVID and the many lessons that we have learned, the time may have come.
Jayne Morgan, MD
Owner and Creator of the Stairwell Chronicles
Board Member of the Medical Association of Atlanta
Delegate of the Medical Association of GA
Executive Director of the COVID Task Force/Piedmont