In the daily headlines, on tickers running across the screens of rolling news broadcasts and all over social media, reports about the spread of the novel coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, have become almost impossible to avoid.
The coronavirus outbreak has been declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization, while in the UK it has been deemed a 'serious and imminent threat' to public health
Despite this, the message from the government has been to reassure people that the UK is extremely well prepared for any potential outbreak of an infectious disease.
Inevitably, and as the coronavirus claims further lives globally, the coverage of the disease is becoming more direct and may risk hyping concerns amongst more vulnerable groups of patients here in the UK.
Over the last few days alone, dramatic headlines have appeared online and in print. This can cause people to worry more than official advice suggests is necessary. Some newspapers have also offered their readers guides on how they can tell if their symptoms are likely to be the virus
For healthcare staff at the front line of GP surgeries across the UK, a key challenge is how to maximise their opportunities to communicate with patients at key contact points.
Arguably a surgery would wish to share relevant information with a patient before they arrive at their surgery anxious to be seen, and social media can be an excellent way for practices to push updated public health information out to their patients.
It is far more likely that patients will 'listen' to a post from their own trusted health provider than other media sources.
So while it is important that patients who need to be seen are seen, providing clear information online can help manage demand and reduce the spread of infection in these situations.
The MDDUS suggests the following dos and don’ts for general practice
Things practices should do
- Ensure your team avoids giving clinical advice to patients about what to do if friends, local community sites and family post on social media about their symptoms. If individuals feel they need to engage, limit advice to how best to access the appropriate local services/out-of-hours advice and care.
- Share relevant and updated NHS advice for patients via the practice’s social media channels.
- Check your contact information is up to date, including how patients can get individualised clinical advice over the telephone, how your triage system works and how to make an appointment if they need to be seen in core service times and also out-of-hours. You may wish to consider using text messaging to communicate public health information to target groups of patients at higher risk.
- Consider if it is appropriate to send information to identified groups of patients about risks specific to them. This is likely to be permissible under GDPR as it concerns important public health information, but if you are unsure about whether this can be undertaken contact your medical defence organisation or your data protection officer for advice.
- The reception team and front-line clinicians are likely to experience higher numbers of calls from concerned patients. Review your triage strategy and appointment availability to check that receptionists and clinicians have a clear understanding of red flag symptoms, and to ensure that specific categories of patients are managed to the best of the practice's ability: e.g. patients who have a relevant travel history (or contact with anyone who has), infants, the elderly and vulnerable groups.
- Make sure all clinicians are equipped to manage consultations over the phone and if a suspected case is identified, that local secondary care infection specialists are contacted for further advice and action.
- Have an agreed strategy for receptionists who may have to deal with patients arriving at the practice.
- Review whether adjusting the pre-recorded outgoing message would help the reception team.
Things not to do
- Don’t expect your reception team to provide advice to patients. Whilst signposting to other services can be appropriate, make sure the team is including safety-netting statements to patients as part of that process.
- Don’t forget that in times of difficulty the team should be encouraged to take time out when they can, and to check-in with each other.
Patients must remain your priority. Good communication between healthcare providers is essential to ensure safe ongoing patient care. The advice above provides helpful direction to healthcare professionals involved in the necessary planning for any escalation of this concern.
- Liz Price is senior risk manager at the MDDUS