by Ellen Harrison, VP of Operations & Market Strategy, HMS

October 2019 – At some point, most healthcare organizations will likely need to communicate with members in some type of emergency or rapid response situation, whether it’s a natural disaster, public health crisis or prescription recall. Just consider the state of natural disasters in 2018. Last year, there were 58,000 wildfires that burned more than 8.8 million acres. The Atlantic hurricane season produced 15 named storms, while the Pacific hurricane season generated another ten.

It’s a similar story with drug recalls. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s list of drug recalls includes more than 50 from this year alone, with a few months to go. Regardless of the circumstances, these consumer-safety events have the potential to deeply affect the lives of patients and health plan members.

A wide range of organizations – including health systems, insurers, employers and state agencies such as those that administer Medicaid – may need emergency outreach communications. Members on the receiving end of outreach efforts often appreciate the gesture, because the outreach symbolizes an organization’s commitment to their safety and best interests, which enhances customer loyalty.

Essentials of strong emergency communications
Above all, emergency outreach communications must be timely, personalized and relevant. Messages must be delivered to only the people who are affected and need the information. For example, engaging people who are located outside of a storm’s path who are unlikely to be affected could cause unnecessary concern and worry, potentially negatively impacting their daily lives and their health.

It is important to engage with people using their preferred channels, which often requires a combination of methods. Understanding a population demographics and psychographics is important. For instance, experience shows that Medicaid populations respond more readily to a combination of mobile phone calls and text messaging. Additionally, emergency outreach communications must contain a forward-looking element, so that during the crisis, recipients are thinking about what happens after the storm passes.

Real-world examples
During the buildup to Hurricane Irma, a large health plan needed to reach out to members in targeted areas of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina that were in the likely path of the hurricane. The goal was to help these members obtain their needed medications in advance of a potential evacuation, even those that were not yet eligible for refill. The organization targeted medication-refill reminders to more than 800,000 members with acute and chronic conditions such as diabetes and HIV who were likely to run out of their medications within two weeks.

With phone calls and text messages, the plan shared information about medication refills and about the storm itself such as evacuation routes, and other preparation information. The outreach was completed in two days, reaching 24% of the population directly and leaving messages for 64%.

In another instance, a health plan enacted its emergency-preparedness outreach protocol in advance of Hurricane Harvey for members who lived near the Gulf Coast. The goal was to deliver information on emergency shelters and phone numbers, storm updates and medication reminders. In 24 hours, they outreached to nearly 260,000 members, reaching 17% and leaving specific messages for 68%.

In addition, after the storm passed, they delivered follow-up outreach that instructed members about any ongoing threats to their health and safety. They targeted members in high-impact areas during the first two weeks after the storm, sharing information about whom to contact with questions about health coverage, plus updates on where to obtain healthcare if needed, as well as information on local shelters and food resources.

Both examples demonstrated rapid responses to the situation at hand; members received not only medications in a timely fashion, but also pertinent information about the storm, shelters, and other safety information to support their families. In general, data show that engagement programs have high satisfaction and member experience results.

Emergency outreach lessons learned
The most important lesson of managing crisis outreach is that often less is more in an emergency. In other words, share the most relevant information and pause other health plan messaging. Providing any non-essential information to members may cause unnecessary abrasion and distraction during a critical and stressful time. Crisis communicators must have the capability to identify non-critical messages, utilize business rules to manage communications and target recipients to limit outreach. All of this must be completed in hours, not weeks.

Best practices for rapid-response communications during a crisis include:

  • Target populations to ensure message relevance and avoid unnecessary disruption
  • Be prepared for common post-disaster questions, such as inquiries regarding emergency updates and access to healthcare, roadways, food and water
  • When time permits, use multiple channels to engage
  • Crisis communications can be most effective as part of a comprehensive engagement program. Members who have received messaging in the past are more likely to engage.

While it may not be possible to predict when the next crisis will hit, it is within your control to plan ahead. Taking steps today will mitigate the impact of that crisis on affected patients and health plan members. A comprehensive emergency response plan that follows these best practices before, during and after crises, will position your healthcare organization to deliver consistent and timely communications. Organizations have an opportunity to be a touchpoint during times of crisis, disseminating critical information to their membership. When coupled with proactive member outreach communications, this rapid-response technique will support your members’ safety while boosting member engagement, experience and loyalty.


About the Author

Ellen Harrison, RN, MBA is the Vice President of Operations & Market Strategy at HMS, where she’s focused on the company’s Population Health Management product portfolio. HMS provides a broad range of coordination of benefits, payment integrity, care management and member engagement solutions that help move the healthcare system forward.

She brings over 20 years of experience in strategic planning, managed care operations and consulting experience with demonstrated results leading teams to build and redesign health care solutions, provider incentive systems and developing successful quality, cost and utilization improvement programs for commercial, government and senior populations.

A results-driven healthcare professional, Ellen has extensive leadership, communication, problem-solving and analytic skills, as well as a proven ability to successfully lead change and manage complex systems with multiple stakeholders.

Her experience includes professional consulting engagements including acting-COO of Portland-based Network for Healthcare Improvement, a grant-funded member organization that facilitates regional quality improvement programs across the country through private and government funding.  Previously, Ellen also served as Vice President of Medical Management for Martin’s Point Health Care, where she directed care management, quality improvement and provider network strategy and contracting for Tricare and Medicare Advantage products and coordinated integrated population health management resources for the MPHC medical practices. During her tenure, Martin’s Point achieved NCQA accreditation and a Medicare Advantage 5 Star rating for two consecutive years. Other senior roles include VP of Shared Decision Making Products at a national disease management firm, Sr. Vice President of HMOs for Trigon Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Virginia and Vice President and General Manager for CIGNA Healthcare of Connecticut.

Ellen is a registered nurse with a bachelor’s degree in Nursing from Syracuse University, and an MBA with a concentration in healthcare from the University of Connecticut.

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