The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced its plans to overhaul the agency to change its culture and restore public trust. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the agency will create plans so that it can move more swiftly when it responds to a public health crisis, with the plan emphasizing accountability, collaboration, communication, and timeliness. Part of this process will be making it easier for other parts of the government to work with them, reducing instances of contradictory public health guidance.
Public health response to a pandemic
One interesting and incisive acknowledgement is the role culture and technology played in the CDC’s response to the pandemic. The cautious and deliberate approach that enabled the CDC to be a force of calm and measured response in previous crises buckled. It revealed opportunities for modernization, that, if embraced and executed, will move the needle substantially towards restoring public trust.
The CDC’s systems were once among the most sophisticated in data collection and sharing, but the world has changed, and information now flows much more rapidly. For instance, when these systems were first implemented, the designers could not have imagined that hospitals would be asked to provide updates on a dozen different hospital bed statistics daily, with definitions that would change rapidly.
Much of government technology, including that of public health agencies such as the CDC, is custom purpose-built development. However, the world has changed, and the private sector now has considerable experience – in some cases more so – around data collection and visualization. Software development is often the first pick when coordinating incident management and emergency response, but the limitations of these tools become clear when extended disasters call for extensive coordination and long-range information sharing of large datasets. The country has witnessed firsthand that managing a public health crisis can last years, and only becomes more challenging when new variants and diseases emerge. Reconstructing a culture to take swift action when public health is at risk depends on maintaining an infrastructure for efficient response.
Considerations for a fast and efficient public health response
The new mindset that has to take hold within all public health agencies is one of fast action. In the past when emergencies struck, we see a surge of emergency funding, a ramping up of responses, building out systems, and gaining trust – but when the event is over, it all gets turned off. Additionally, policymakers all too often end up defunding emergency preparedness and response capacity when time passes without encountering one. This is problematic because once emergency responses are disconnected, it can take a significant amount of time to rebuild them. This is even more evident in public health agencies who are historically underfunded.
Communication and collaboration must be a part of the definitive plan by which government agencies lead a public health response during a crisis. Whether it be a local, regional, national, or global health emergency, here are several key steps to successfully execute an efficient response and convey information efficiently:
- Create a clear message. Use the simplest terms and specify each different type of person who might be impacted so they can understand what is happening and how to follow the instructions they’ve been given. Keep descriptions as specific and unchanging as possible to prevent potential misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
- Consistency is key. There might be times when multiple authorities are sharing information; these should mirror one another across communications, with a consistent voice. Streamlining a message through all authorities, stakeholders, and media platforms eliminates miscommunication and misunderstanding.
- Be timely. Prolonged delays in messages lead to incorrect assumptions and uninformed decision-making. Frequent and consistent messages provide reassurance and set expectations for when new information emerges, and updates must be made. Timely messaging should be applied across all communication methods and have a defined cadence for each medium – phone, email, or push notifications, among other channels.
- Engage with social media. With billions of users on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, social media must not be overlooked when issuing emergency communications. Utilizing these platforms for alerts, updates, and other information is useful, but not just through posts and shares – it also means taking an active role in monitoring community feeds and pages. This can help responders to locate and debunk misinformation.
Harnessing modern communications for emergency response
Public health agencies must chart their courses to modernization, but for organizations that have so many interconnected systems that impact so many stakeholders, it can be a formidable task. Emerging on the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic has proven that we must stand guard for the next health emergency, not just reacting to the previous emergency. We are presented with the opportunity to enhance the reach and impact of emergency communications through networks and platforms, for better communication and collaboration, through systems that leverage innovation and enhancements from ongoing commercial use and share data using a common data standard.
Legacy systems for data sharing and collection must be modernized. Emergency and crisis management networks and platforms must allow responders to centralize communication efforts and share sensitive data securely. Data driven decisions through dashboards and advanced analytics can provide immediate insights in real-time enabling greater awareness of available resources, accelerating mutual aid efforts and handling requests between separate organizations. A real-time, collaborative, critical incident management network will ensure this by allowing response teams to be more connected across public agencies, private sector enterprises, and the entire health care sector.
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