On most days in an ambulatory surgery center (ASC), communication is second nature.
A combination of phone calls, emails and text messages are used to complete routine tasks, from patient pre-surgical assessments to staff scheduling to vendor appointment verification. But on occasion, these forms of individual or small group outreach efforts are inadequate. What's the occasion? An emergency or crisis. That's when your ASC will need a mass communication plan (and one, as will be explained later, that should be carried out via text messaging).
As the Department of Homeland Security's Ready website notes, "When an emergency occurs, the need to communicate is immediate. … An important component of the [emergency] preparedness program is the crisis communications plan. A business must be able to respond promptly, accurately and confidently during an emergency in the hours and days that follow. Many different audiences must be reached with information specific to their interests and needs."
In addition, an effective mass communication plan also allows businesses to track whether critical messages have reached audiences successfully. If your ASC is in business long enough, it will encounter an emergency, crisis or unexpected event that warrants communication. For some surgery centers, such experiences are likely to be more commonplace.
Consider the following five reasons why ASCs need a mass communication plan:
1. Disasters. Disasters have the potential to wreak havoc on an ASC. Natural disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, can cause significant damage to a surgery center or at least greatly disrupt operations if damage occurs in the surrounding area. Manmade disasters, such as bioterrorism attacks, transportation accidents, fires and even cyberattacks, can do the same. An effective mass communication plan will inform patients, staff and vendors of the change in operations and better help ensure these individuals stay off the roads and out of harm's way.
2. Weather. As with disasters, the likes of a blizzard, thunderstorm or hailstorm can force an ASC to at least temporarily close. If damage occurs to the facility or the roads around it, this closure may extend to days or even weeks. Any delays in conveying time-sensitive updates to individuals planning to travel to the ASC will create increased risk.
3. Power outages. While ASCs are required to own generators, their use is intended to be temporary. So, when power outages occur — which has become more commonplace in parts of California, for example — ASCs will need to suspend operations as soon as safely possible. Power outages can last for hours, days or even longer. During these times, ASCs will want the ability to rapidly inform anyone who will be affected by the change, both about when the power outage occurs and when power has returned.
While power outages are not typically as dangerous as disasters or severe weather, any individuals who come to the ASC and find out that they made an unnecessary trip are likely to be unhappy. This feeling will likely be elevated for those patients who cannot easily take time off from work or must travel long distances for their surgical care. A mass communication plan can reduce such dissatisfaction.
4. Active shooters and workplace violence. News reports regularly remind us that active shooters and workplace violence are serious threats to any business, including ASCs. In fact, healthcare organizations face an elevated risk.
As an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) study notes, "The rate of serious workplace violence incidents (those requiring days off for an injured worker to recuperate) was more than four times greater in healthcare than in private industry on average. In fact, healthcare accounts for nearly as many serious violent injuries as all other industries combined." One of the factors OSHA cites as a reason for the increased risk: "lack of means of emergency communication."
Mass communication can inform staff — and possibly employees of other businesses, if the ASC is in a shared building — of what is occurring, helping them make decisions to aid in the response and keep others away from the location where the incident is occurring. In addition, mass communication can help keep more individuals from coming to the ASC, reducing the risk of more harm.
5. Unplanned surgeon absence. While not as urgent as the other reasons highlighted above, a mass communication plan comes in handy for an unplanned surgeon absence — particularly when that surgeon performs a high volume of daily procedures (e.g., gastroenterologist, pain management specialist, ophthalmologist). The sooner an ASC can inform patients of the need to cancel their procedures due to such an absence, the more time patients and their family members/friends will have to adjust their schedules accordingly. Effective outreach can help increase patient satisfaction or at least reduce any potential damage to satisfaction caused by the cancellation.
Why text messaging should be the mass communication method of choice
While phone trees and email can be used as mass communication methods, neither is as effective or efficient as text messaging. Texting should be a primary component of any emergency communication plan for any ASC.
Here are a few of the most critical reasons why:
• Cell phone towers have backup generators, which means that when the main power goes off, cell phones still work.
• More than 96% of Americans own a mobile phone of some kind, and there is a high likelihood that people will have their mobile phone with them throughout an emergency. Most people have their phone with them almost every waking minute, or it is at least within earshot.
• Texting is a proven form of communication. Research has shown that 98% of texts are read and 95% are read within just three minutes of being sent. This means if you need to get a message out quickly, to a significant number of people and with a high degree of confidence that your audience will receive it, send that message as a text.
• Most phone calls go unanswered, voicemail is "going the way of the dinosaurs" and large numbers of emails go unread.
Also consider the following: According to a Nextgov report, data indicates that a person who texts has an 800-to-1 better chance of sending a message to someone in an emergency than using voice communications because a short message (e.g., "imok" for "I'm OK") requires only four bytes using standard text messaging protocols. Furthermore, a Consumer Reports News article encourages texting over phone calls when faced with a disaster. Finally, a Public Health Reports study highlights the effectiveness of text messaging for communicating information to public health employees and improving workforce situational awareness during emergencies.
More organizations now rely on text messaging for emergency communication, including many utilities. The federal government has its own text messaging system (Wireless Emergency Alerts) for emergencies. The system has been used nearly 50,000 times to warn the public about critical situations.
ASCs should consider how texting can help strengthen the communication component of their emergency preparedness and business continuity plan. Two-way texting is ubiquitous, effective and very efficient. The time to deploy texting is well before it is needed.
Brandon Daniell is president and co-founder of Dialog Health, a cloud-based, two-way texting platform that enables vital information to be pushed to and pulled from patients and caregivers.