Incompetence in Public Health Communications…Ottawa Public Health

Two years ago I wrote 2 posts on the poor job done by communications practioners on the H1N1 fiasco.

In my first post I stated:

“Sometimes I wonder if public sector health communicators and marketers are being made to look like a bunch of incompetents. H1N1 communications, at least in Canada, has been an unmitigated disaster and the big question mark is why this is happening? We have one of the worst communication screw-ups in the history of the public sector?”See blog

In my second post I wrote:

As someone who spent a quarter century in the health communications and social marketing field, I am flabbergasted on how ineffective the communications coming out of health authorities is on H1N1.One thing seems clear and that is the compelling need for reliable information, to understand the risks this virus presents, what to do about it and who to go to for help and advice.

Yes there is the WHO, many levels of government and others who are providing news and information via many channels: television, radio, toll-free phone numbers, the web, printed material, etc. Much of that information, though, is contradictory, inconsistent, and hard to understand and, in some cases unreliable. There are so many sources you don’t know who to believe.

So, is this an example of overkill? Is it a case of “the boy crying wolf”? When real pandemic hits, which could happen, will people listen? Sometimes “over-communications” can work against the health communicators who day after day are “hammering out” the message. And the more they hammer the less confidence people have towards the vaccine. Is this effective “crisis or risk communications”?

Remember BSE? Infected cows were going to turn our brains to mush. Then we had the SARS fiasco. Do the health authorities have a Marketing and Communications plan that comprehends the need not to over communicate and ensure that everyone in the health field is on the same page and that we get consistent messages that don’t contradict each other? See blog

Well here we go again last week Ottawa Public Health has made a big deal out of a health risk that is so close to nothing that it would take a microscope to tell the difference. Worse, the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) has caused undue public concern by mismanaging the release of the information.

Here is the story for those of you who are not aware of what happened.

The MOH of Ottawa called a press conference warning that thousands of Ottawan’s were at risk of hepatitis or HIV infection, but he wouldn’t tell the public what procedure was involved, what had gone wrong or what clinic did the work. As a result, anyone who has had any procedure done at any nonhospital clinic in the last decade had cause to worry about a severe health problem. The lack of information and the weekend timing guaranteed maximum unease.

When asked why he would not release this information the MOH stated that he was concerned that some media outlet would break the story and provide the public with inaccurate information. What!!!!!

As the Ottawa Citizen points out and anyone with any communications background would know (does Ottawa Public Health have any experienced communication professionals?) The obvious solution would have been to provide the public with accurate information the first time the MOH talked about it.

The media coverage of the press conference which hit the national news was on the broadcast media as a lead story the whole weekend. The way the story ran and the attention it got (As the Citizen points out) it was about what you’d expect if Ottawa Health had discovered the Ebola virus in the City Hall drinking fountains.

Lost in the overreaction was the fact that the actual problem, a failure to clean colonoscopy and endoscopy equipment properly, is not a major calamity. There is a one in a million chance that someone might have contracted hepatitis B from improperly cleaned scopes. The likelihood of getting hepatitis C is one in 50 million and of HIV, one in three billion. See editorial in Citizen

What happened in Ottawa is so small that it’s barely worthy of notice, much less huge public attention. Unfortunately, the way the public health folks released the information and the gravity they attached to it gave this small matter far more attention than it deserved. And created unnecessary panic in Ottawa.

A number of years ago I was asked by the School of Medicine at the University of Ottawa to give a marketing and communications seminar for public health doctors (many of who were coming to the University for a Special Program from across Canada). I thought that would be an interesting challenge until I was told that the time allotted to this seminar was 2.5 hours. I suggested to them that this was not much time allocated to such an important function but did the training anyway.

The doctors involved in the seminar, which I did for 3 years, were very receptive and all agreed that they wish there was more time allocated to marketing and communications. Based on the incidents mentioned above, maybe the MOH’s in this country need to get more training in communications and marketing.

If you work in the public health field let me know what you think.

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