Public Health Emergencies: Addressing the Communication Challenges
Communicating critical information when it comes to public health can quickly become stressful. For health departments facing public health emergencies, there must be consideration over how to communicate and with whom—as they need to communicate quickly about the situation and involve the right stakeholders without leaking information that could cause hysteria. They also need a way to communicate to the public reliably as in many cases they are dealing with life-saving information. Unfortunately, many still rely on antiquated or non-secure means in which to communicate sensitive information, and with all of these factors at play, information can often become muddled.
HIPAA and Public Health: First Responders
Understanding HIPAA can be complicated and confusing for first responders—who can they share information with? Who can they not? At the scene, multiple people may be asking for information—policemen, bystanders—and of course, there is a need to communicate with other healthcare providers. First responders can disclose PHI without authorization in the following situations:
- To another healthcare provider for treatment purposes.
- To family members, personal friends, or individuals that the patient has given verbal consent to do so.
- To a public health authority in cases of child or adult abuse, neglect, or violence or to report a product defect that resulted in injury.
- To a public health authority in the case of communicable diseases.
- To law enforcement in particular situations, such as a warrant for the request or when information is necessary with relation to a suspect or a crime.
- In the case of there being a serious threat to health and safety of a person or the public.
- To coroners, medical examiners, and funeral directors for identifying a deceased person, determining cause of death, or carrying out duties authorized by law.
While these are situations where first responders CAN share PHI, it is important to recognize that they must still follow the “minimum necessary” requirements when sharing information with groups other than healthcare providers for treatment purposes. That means sharing information with a public health authority or public official that provides only the minimum necessary to fulfill the purpose (for example, notifying a health department of a communicable disease).
At the same time, first responders may need to communicate quickly with each other and with healthcare providers—and they need to do it in a way that protects patient’s information. In such a scenario paging or phone calls may simply not be quick enough—first responders need a way to communicate that is secure, confidential and efficient—such as through a secure messaging platform.
Communications and Public Health Departments
Public health departments also face other challenges when it comes to communication. If public health departments are aware of a health emergency—such as the spread of a communicable disease such as an e coli outbreak, they need to act quickly and calmly to inform the public. The CDC Crisis and Emergency Risk manual warns against the pitfalls of the public receiving mixed information from experts, receiving information too late and not properly countering rumors and myths in real-time. In other words, it’s critical that public health departments are able to control the narrative, reacting to situations quickly and securely, and ensuring that the public receives the relevant information through an appropriate medium.
Once public health departments are aware of the risk, they need to spring into action. This involves communicating with relevant stake holders—including local governments, non-governmental organizations, faith-based organizations and other departments to set their crisis plan into action and make sure everyone is aware of their role. They also must prepare the information they plan to share with the public. By securely collaborating internally, constructing and controlling the narrative of the event, public health departments can deliver one source of truth that minimizes mixed information, rumor and speculation. Key to this is their relationship with social media and media agencies—who will help to disperse the narrative presented to them. Public health officials must make sure they have presented clear, concise information that can reach those most immediately affected easily. As no plan is perfect, once the information is dispersed, social media and news media should still be tracked to check for any questions, misunderstandings, rumors or remaining confusion over facts, and plans should be in place to address these misunderstandings quickly.
Key to communicating with critical stakeholders and developing the key messages or narrative to share is ensuring that communication occurs in a centralized manner—securely—to reduce the possibility of misinformation spreading and causing panic. For this – secure communication platforms are necessary.
Vaporstream and Public Health
As a secure messaging platform, Vaporstream allows public health departments, regulators, emergency management offices and first responders communicate in a way that is efficient, uniquely secure and compliant. Should a first responder arrive on scene and need to communicate quickly with a public health official or health care provider, he or she can easily do so in a secure, HIPAA compliant manner, using Vaporstream. Additionally, during a public health emergency, public health departments can securely and confidentially collaborate with stakeholders on a single communication platform and use it to plan and create a concrete message that can then be dispersed to the general public without fear of information leaks or surveillance. As a key component to the response plan, Vaporstream ensures that information is efficiently and effectively communicated without sacrificing compliance, security or public health and safety.
To find out more about how the Vaporstream Secure Messaging Platform helps Public Health programs prepare and respond to various emergency scenarios contact us, or request a demo to see Vaporstream in action.
Contributor: Kristi Perdue Hinkle