*Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
As the numbers of people infected and dying from COVID-19 grow, so do fear and apprehension about what lies ahead. Clear, effective communication to help patients navigate this unknown territory is critical. Dr. Alexander Chiu, ENTtoday’s physician editor, recently highlighted this in a commentary published on March 13 in which he wrote, “Talking to our patients in a language they can understand is fundamental to our job.”
To guide clinicians, we turned to a risk communication expert with years of experience helping people during times of crisis. Peter Sandman, PhD, urged officials early in the COVID-19 outbreak that they needed to tell the general public to start preparing for a pandemic.
Dr. Sandman stressed that candor is more comforting than reassurance, and that it’s important to help people find ways to feel in control.
ENTtoday: How can otolaryngologists talk to patients who contact them needing care, and explain things like the differences between what is an emergency, an urgent need, or an elective need?
Dr. Sandman: I think patients mostly understand already that this is an upside-down time when all sorts of plans are being changed and norms are being violated. If they’re seeking treatment anyway, maybe they think it’s essential. Maybe they’re thinking only about themselves, trying to get a little control over something while so much of their lives is now beyond their control. Maybe they figure there’s no harm in asking, and they’re already prepared to be turned down.
I would start by asking, “Do you want to move forward and you hope I’m willing? Or do you want to postpone and you hope I think that’s safe? Or are you undecided and looking for more information to figure out what you want? Or is this a decision you want to leave entirely in my hands?” The rest of the conversation should depend on the answer to that question.
Early on, it might help to articulate some things you can be pretty sure patients are feeling. “What an awful time this is! What an additional burden it must be to be facing a medical procedure that might be scary even in normal times, and now it’s much scarier—scary to think about how dangerous it might be to have the procedure done right now, scary to think about how dangerous it might be to postpone the procedure till the pandemic is over.”