EDITORIAL: Health and Communication Crises

Aside from the health crisis the Department of Health (DOH) in the Bicol region is facing vis-à-vis the Coronavirus disease (Covid-19), it is very obvious that it is also burdened by a secondary crisis involving communication, which if not addressed right away, would add fear and panic to Bicolanos who expect clear, transparent and honest information from the health department that is primarily tasked to handle the Covid-19 outbreak.

Recent developments showed that the DOH, despite ample time of planning and preparations for the eventual entry of Covid-19 in the region, has overlooked an equally important and integral aspect of managing the virus outbreak, that is, what public relation practitioners called crisis communication.

This problem on communication became apparent on Mar. 28, 2020 after Dr. Francisco DJ. Sales III, officer-in-charge of the Bicol Medical Center (BMC) in Naga City denied a portion of the press release issued the day before by DOH Bicol regional director Dr. Ernie V. Vera pertaining to PH 763, a 48-year old female admitted at the BMC. PH 763 is one of the three Covid-19 cases in the region according to the press release. Although the press release did not mention other details about PH 763, the Facebook (FB) page of DOH Center for Health Development (CHD) Bicol, on the same date, stated that the patient is from Milaor, Camarines Sur.

Sales, in an official statement in reference to the DOH press release, said “the BMC currently have 7 PUIs admitted. There were no admitted PUI that matches patient PH 763 profile. Further, he said that “we are waiting for the official result from the Research Institute of Tropical Medicine (RITM) in relation to patient PH 763. However, we have seen mild PUIs that matches the patient’s profile wherein swab was done and patient was sent home on home quarantine as per DOH protocol.”

Vera’s press release as far as PH 763 is concerned and Sales’ denial of PH 763’s admission in BMC, plus the subsequent denial of the local government unit (LGU) of Milaor that it has no record of the patient’s existence as a town resident, resulted to a storm of confusion and widespread innuendos as to the identity and whereabouts of PH 763.

The public, especially netizens, flooded DOH with questions and criticisms through Facebook (FB), the world’s No. 1 social media networking site.

Adding wind to the storm of confusion is the absence of DOH’s immediate action to clarify the conflicting statements between DOH and BMC.

A thorough reading and analysis of the DOH press statement showed that the seeming conflict between the former’s statement and that of BMC, stemmed from the words “admitted at the BMC,” which the public correctly interpreted as confinement at the BMC. The BMC statement was factual when it said that “(T)here were no admitted PUI that matches patient PH 763 profile,” because the patient just went to the hospital “wherein swab was done and patient was sent home on home quarantine as per DOH protocol.”

Obviously, the backlash against DOH was simply because of a wrong choice of word, which could have been easily corrected by a simple clarification and apology. Unfortunately, the DOH did none of that, thus instead of feeling a simple headache, it is now suffering from an intense migraine.

For one, in a crisis situation, DOH Bicol, chair of the Inter-Agency Task Force on (IATF) Covid-19 should have designated a spokesperson, not necessarily its regional director, to serve as the official and only voice of the DOH and IATF on all matters about the Covid-19 situation in the region. This spox should be credible, knowledgeable, articulate, and has an amiable personality to deal with media and provide the public, on a regular basis, important information and updates on the burning issues at hand.

Obviously, the DOH-Bicol needs a good crisis communicator and writers aside from more doctors, nurses, testing kits, personal protective equipment, medical supplies, and the support of the public in the fight against this global pandemic.

As a doctor himself, the director of DOH-Bicol should always remember his fellow physician’s popular advice that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Having said that, let us support the DOH and all the frontliners in preventing the virus from spreading further.