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Communications Teams Used Apps, Social Media to Support Pandemic Health Needs

Mental and physical health care required new strategies to reach and build trust with the public during the pandemic.

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Technology has played a powerful role in providing individuals with mental and physical health services amid COVID-19, both in making them aware of what resources are available through strategic communications and in the abilities offered through telehealth and remote care.

Mental health and health communications leaders touched on the amplifying role of IT and digital services for both getting word out to patients about different resources and for health service delivery throughout the COVID-19 pandemic during GovernmentCIO Media & Research’s Health IT: New Horizons in Medicine event last week.

Strategic outreach has been a strong focus for agencies amid the pandemic, both in building trust with the public and in making them aware of key resources for mental and physical health. Taking a multi-pronged approach to this outreach has been a critical element.

Health Resources and Services Administration Deputy Director of Communications Christy Choi emphasized that pushing social media campaigns on the COVID-19 uninsured claims program was a massive pivot and undertaking to help Americans amid the pandemic. HRSA put out about a year’s worth of social media posts in just four or five months.

“When we first launched the COVID uninsured program last April, we posted on social media everyday the first week and two, three times a week the following weeks to make sure providers learned about the program, that the American people knew they could get tested and treatment, even without insurance,” Choi said.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration Communications Director Charissa Pallas also ramped up social media campaigns to promote its helplines, such as the National Helpline, the National Suicide Helpline and the Disaster Distress Helpline — the last of which is normally reserved for national disasters like earthquakes and wildfires. However, SAMHSA recognized COVID-19 as a national disaster and advertised the line to help those suffering from the pandemic.

“The Disaster Distress helpline is normally a helpline that’s used for … target audiences who would be dealing with hurricanes or wildfires that happened this year,” Pallas said. “During the pandemic, which is also considered something we would consider a disaster, that involves the entire population.”

As a result of SAMHSA’s shift in strategic communications, the agency saw a significant uptick in engagement with the public, aiding them in mental health and support throughout the past year.

“We have changed how we communicate to make sure we’re reaching the entire population now with the disaster line,” Pallas said. “Those calls have risen by more than 800% this year.”

While Pallas’ organization runs helplines for the broader population for counseling and support, the Department of Veterans Affairs has been doing its part to reach out and provide technology to both staff and veterans to continue remote health and mental health services.

After closing many of its medical and treatment facilities, VA disseminated 16,000 laptops and over 7,500 iPhones to veterans to continue — especially mental health care — noted Marquis Barefield, assistant director at Disabled American Veterans, a veteran service organization. The VA particularly sent these devices to veterans in rural areas, where the geographical nature already made mental health care difficult to access.

Christina Armstrong, clinical psychologist at the Veterans Health Administration Office of Connected Care, said various apps her agency launched aided in the pivot to remote care, strengthening the digital mental health experience for veterans.

“We’ve created new technologies that didn’t exist before that are specific to COVID, so we created the COVID Coach Mobile App,” Armstrong said. “Usually it takes about three years to create a mobile app in the federal government, which might be surprising to people, but they were able to shift really quickly and create this app in mere months, and … now we have about a quarter million people that have already downloaded this app and are benefiting and tracking their mental health that way.”

VA also updated the Annie App, which sends automated text messages to veterans on mental and physical health issues, to include symptoms specific to COVID-19.

“We shifted quickly and recreated six different home protocols that automated messaging services that are specific to COVID, so one is if a veteran is in isolation or quarantine, so they can receive these text messages and then respond back with their symptoms,” Armstrong said. “The care team can then login on their side of Annie and be able to see and track on temperature, on other kids of symptoms of fatigue, other symptoms of COVID.”

The app also tracks mental health distress caused by COVID-19 if users choose. 10,000 veterans are subscribed to this offer, giving them quick access to relevant resources.

Throughout these resources and outreach, trust and trustworthy information are the most critical, especially in a time of uncertainty and environment rife with misinformation, National Cancer Institute Communications Director Peter Garrett said.

“Trust is in question right now, and I think if you look across vaccine hesitancy, all these things, we’re not in the same position of providing care as other agencies here,” Garrett said of NCI and cancer care. “But we’re generating information, and trust and credibility — we can’t do anything if we don’t have that.”

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