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Communicating with vulnerable populations during a health crisis

Senior woman with mask looking out the window
Written by
Gabrièle Berger

Gabrièle Berger

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to worsen day by day, particularly in Montreal, which is currently the Canadian epicentre of the virus outbreak, populations affected by various risk factors, be they health-related, economic or other, are all the more vulnerable.

In the context of this pandemic, the Public Health Agency of Canada has defined the following groups as being "at risk": seniors, people with one or more pre-existing conditions or those who are immunosuppressed as a result of illness or treatment, and the list goes on. Also at risk are people who have difficulty reading and communicating, who live in remote areas, who have a low socioeconomic status, etc.

Organizations, patient associations, pharmaceutical companies and others working with these populations have a key role to play in the current crisis. They are typically well-positioned to communicate with vulnerable populations, understand their needs and help meet those needs.

However, multiple factors can make organizations less inclined to get involved, as the needs are numerous, specific and very diverse. Here are a few ideas for health sector organizations that want to better communicate with vulnerable groups during this time of crisis.

1. Relay information

Given the diversity of at-risk clienteles, it is important for organizations to help relay information from public health authorities. This can be done in a variety of ways: using existing communication channels with these vulnerable groups, popularizing the information with help from your organization's experts, or disseminating targeted information to cultural communities in their native language. Do not hesitate to use multiple channels—a combination of activities that reach the target audience in different ways and at different times is essential.

2. Demonstrate needs through research

If you have the capacity, consider disseminating survey results, scientific research or other relevant data on the needs of at-risk communities with which you interact. The visibility you generate around these issues could have an impact on donations, volunteering and even government decisions in the longer term.

3. Partner with other organizations

A pharmaceutical company may have access to resources that a patients’ organization would need; in return, the patients’ organization potentially enjoys privileged relationships with members of the community it wishes to serve. It may therefore be useful to set up working groups, whether to launch volunteer or fundraising initiatives, or to support mobile clinics, such as those recently set up in Montreal, for example, among other ideas. An audit of mutual aid opportunities helps ensure the success of an initiative and avoids creating competition between organizations pursuing the same goal.

4. Use innovative communication strategies

One of the challenges of communicating with vulnerable populations is that they do not always have access to, or simply might not use, mainstream communication channels. Depending on the vulnerability factors, they may not have access to resources that are often taken for granted, such as smartphones or public transit.

In such cases, innovation in communication becomes particularly important. Co-production, involving stakeholders or the public in shaping the right messages or communication tactics, is an avenue that is increasingly being pursued. The use of art is another innovative means of communication. For example, some organizations publish comic strips on social networks to highlight health issues. There is also a technique called "photovoice", sometimes employed in exploratory research, where participants are invited to represent their community or the issues they face through photographs they have taken.

Health experts have a key role to play in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the absence of clear, reliable and accessible information, the void risks being filled by inaccurate sources, putting vulnerable groups at risk. At NATIONAL, our healthcare communication specialists can help you establish a fruitful dialogue with vulnerable populations to the benefit of all.

Gabrièle Berger is a former Associate at NATIONAL Public Relations