Keys to Effective Healthcare Crisis Management

Tables of Contents

Effective leadership is necessary in any crisis. But a healthcare crisis often requires striking a balance between patient-centered care and scarce resources — and that makes wise counsel and strong leadership even more important. Providing healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, often has called for weighing what’s best for individual patients against the overall availability of treatment.

Members of a crisis management team discuss an emergency response plan.

A pandemic is not the only situation in which healthcare crisis management is a necessity. Navigating a wide variety of disasters — such as chemical emergencies, fires, terrorist acts, and weather events like floods or tornadoes — calls for solid healthcare leadership, teamwork, and crisis communication.

Weak leadership in these situations can be damaging. A 2018 study of South African hospitals published in the Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare shows why: Researchers found that challenges such as overcrowding, high occupancy rates, budget limitations, and staff shortages jeopardized the quality of patient care. Effective leadership, researchers report, can help healthcare teams address these issues and improve treatment during a crisis.

After all, the real test of leadership doesn’t happen when things are going smoothly; it happens when challenges occur. If you’re ready to display the kind of crisis leadership that helps ensure positive patient and staff outcomes, explore how a bachelor’s in healthcare management can help.

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Providing Healthcare Leadership During a Crisis

During a healthcare crisis, leadership should be empathetic, responsive, and in tune with the diverse needs of a population. Strong healthcare leadership during a crisis begins before the event even happens — and it continues well after the crisis is over. Healthcare crisis management should go beyond addressing the concerns of those who are receiving treatment. It also should acknowledge the needs of the employees providing that treatment.

Key Elements of Effective Healthcare Leadership in a Crisis

To facilitate high-quality patient care and well-equipped staff during a crisis, healthcare leaders should focus on planning, communication, and quick action. The following are among the steps for providing effective healthcare leadership in a crisis.

Creating a Crisis Leadership Team

Developing a team to facilitate a crisis response, ideally before the issue occurs, should be a top priority for leadership. The team should typically include representatives from the following business areas:

  • Executive management
  • Board of directors
  • Department leadership
  • Communication and marketing
  • Human resources

In leading the crisis response, this group should be ready to communicate with all departments, analyze problems, and propose actions to address the crisis.

Developing a Disaster Plan

Leaders planning for a healthcare crisis should consider the worst-case scenario and develop plans for addressing all facets of the scenario. And, while the group should agree on set processes for handling a crisis, it should have the flexibility to adjust to any unexpected events related to the event. A plan should address considerations such as:

  • Goals for the plan
  • Contact information for personnel
  • Requirements for technological equipment
  • Procedures for recovery
  • Plans for mobile setup
  • Steps for rebuilding
  • Testing the plan
  • Changes to plans over time

Seeking Out Credible Information

Strong leadership during a crisis includes getting answers from credible sources. The Center for Creative Leadership notes that gathering — and sharing — reliable information is important for several reasons.

  • It lessens the fear of the unknown.
  • It provides solid guidance about what’s next.
  • It shows employees and the public that leadership is knowledgeable and involved.

In a piece addressing leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, Forbes magazine notes that unbiased, science-based information can save lives. During a crisis, healthcare leaders should gather and provide information that’s rooted in science and patient safety and encourage others to do so as well.

Sharing Information Broadly

Transparency is critical in crisis leadership, and information about a crisis response should be distributed as broadly as possible. Sharing the information face to face at first, even if by video, is best. But the messaging shouldn’t stop with one announcement. Reinforcing information by repeating it through multiple channels of communication helps ensure that employees, patients, and the public have received and understand it.

Taking Calm and Decisive Action

Leaders should acknowledge the severity of the situation during a crisis and then act on it. Any time spent denying the problem and its repercussions is time in which the crisis could worsen. Instead, healthcare leaders facing a crisis should quickly make note of the situation and begin the work of addressing the circumstances. That means, for example, not ignoring a weather event in the hope that its effects won’t have repercussions on healthcare; instead, acknowledge that a crisis could occur and lead actions to address it.

Leading the Care of Patients and Employees

A healthcare crisis requires an extraordinary level of patient care. At the same time, the extreme demands a crisis places on medical services can leave healthcare institutions operating with scarce resources to provide that emergency care. Effective healthcare crisis management means juggling assurances that patients are receiving assistance and equipping medical personnel to handle the stress they face.

After all, physicians, nurses, and other healthcare providers may not be used to working under such extreme conditions. To help ensure healthcare staff have the support they need to provide care during a crisis, leaders need to communicate a clear action plan for addressing the situation. Too often, according to a 2020 Gallup Poll of medical staff providing COVID-19 care, that communication isn’t occurring. The results show that less than half of healthcare workers strongly agreed their employers had communicated a clear action plan for addressing the coronavirus.

Little surprise, then, that the same Gallup Poll showed only 44% of medical personnel strongly agreed their organizations care about their overall well-being. To help meet the needs of healthcare staff so they can better provide patient care, leaders should take the following actions:

  • Communicate not only about daily plans but also about overall expectations regarding the situation. Healthcare leaders should share news — framing it as an evolving situation, if needed — as well as updates as soon as the information is available.
  • Encourage innovation to tackle evolving needs in providing care. Leaders should leverage partnerships with outside organizations for knowledge and resources to address unique needs. For instance, many engineering and manufacturing firms stepped up to develop new treatment methods and protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Care for employees holistically, encouraging positive workplace interactions. Employers who address staff needs ranging from job satisfaction to physical stamina can help prevent burnout and promote outstanding patient care.

Addressing Long-Term Effects of a Crisis

Leadership during a crisis is vital, but so is leadership following the event. Healthcare needs often don’t end with a singular event.

For example, the Health Research Institute of auditing firm PwC projected that the medical profession in 2021 would continue to face a variety of challenges related to the COVID-19 crisis that began a year prior. One of those challenges is mental health issues. Of the Americans PwC surveyed, nearly a third — 32% — said they’d had anxiety or depression because of the pandemic.

This finding is in line with the results of research from the King’s Fund, which called for leadership in addressing mental health care challenges following crises. The English think tank’s study of the aftermath of various disasters around the globe — such as earthquakes, floods, and pandemics — showed the effects spanned more than a decade. From anniversaries of key events related to the crisis to secondary stressors like financial difficulties, events after the crisis can affect mental health long term.

The organization cited the challenges related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. as an example. Along with healthcare issues stemming from the events of that day, the medical community continued to care for patients with mental health concerns related to the loss of loved ones and financial support. Additionally, first responders are facing health challenges such as cancer and respiratory issues long after the attacks.

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Establishing a Crisis Management Team

Given how important forming a crisis management team is to providing effective healthcare crisis management, it merits a closer look. This group plays a key role in preparing an organization to respond to potential emergencies. It also helps lead efforts to keep the organization running if a crisis does occur.

Crisis Management Team Roles

A crisis leadership team should include groups who perform the following duties:

  • Manage the response
  • Perform the tactical operations outlined in the emergency plan
  • Oversee assistance to employees
  • Ensure the organization meets its financial responsibilities

The team should have a leader who oversees the group’s work and serves as a liaison with management to implement the steps of a disaster plan. Effective healthcare crisis management includes executive support for the decisions of the employee in this role.

Expertise Required for Crisis Management Team

With members’ various areas of focus in mind, what skills and expertise should a crisis leadership team bring to the table? In general, the group should include members who perform well under pressure, possess good analytical skills, and are strong communicators. The group must have members with expertise in areas such as:

  • Human resources
  • Information technology (IT)
  • Operations
  • Security
  • Communication
  • Finance
  • Legal requirements

Effective crisis management teams should also include personnel with the expertise to address issues unique to the disaster. This could be professionals who are well-positioned to assist employees who are facing the effects of a weather disaster in their own homes, for example, or those who can help ensure workers stay healthy during a pandemic.

Healthcare leaders should ensure that the crisis team has an accessible location to meet, plan, and act — even if it must be remote. Remote meeting spaces should be protected from security threats.

Crisis Management Team Responsibilities

Just as healthcare leaders must address a crisis prior to, during, and after the event, the crisis management team has responsibilities that extend beyond the disaster itself. The following are some specific tasks they should perform.

Planning for a Crisis

The crisis management team’s work begins with planning for different types of healthcare crisis scenarios. Activities should include:

  • Creating and following a plan for addressing the crisis, including how to handle internal and external crisis communication
  • Analyzing the organization’s potential vulnerabilities in the case of a disaster
  • Gauging stakeholders’ concerns about a potential crisis
  • Identifying resources available to respond to the crisis and ensuring they’re available
  • Establishing health and safety protocols for employees during the crisis
  • Developing plans to help ensure the healthcare facility’s financial stability
  • Training employees in crisis procedures

Assisting Leaders During a Crisis

When a healthcare crisis happens, the team should work in partnership with the organization’s executives to follow the established plan for addressing it. Steps the team takes during the emergency include:

  • Identifying when a crisis is occurring
  • Assessing the event’s impact
  • Determining when to begin implementing the crisis plan
  • Communicating to employees, patients, and other stakeholders
  • Coordinating employee assistance

Evaluating the Crisis Response

After a healthcare crisis occurs, the team should evaluate the effectiveness of its plan. What worked? What needs improvements? Steps in this process include:

  • Making necessary changes to the crisis management plan
  • Communicating changes in disaster plans
  • Replacing equipment and other resources used in handling the crisis
  • Conducting drills to test revised plans

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Leading Effective Crisis Communication

An important component of healthcare crisis management is crisis communication. Organizations should outline steps for communicating as part of their overall crisis management planning. The communication plan also should note which staff members will be responsible for addressing specific groups, such as the news media and partner organizations.

For example, crisis management team members whose expertise includes public relations could be the point of contact for news media. Team members who regularly work on projects with other organizations could be responsible for outreach to partners.

Audiences to Address in a Crisis

Healthcare leaders should tailor messages about a crisis to their intended audiences, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For example, following a mass shooting, a hospital could announce externally how many patients it’s treating. Internally, leaders could focus on how they will ensure staffing levels to provide high-quality care.

Messages to Convey During a Crisis

The U.S. government website lists audiences to address during a crisis, as well as some information to share with each group. These audiences and messaging include:

  • Patients and loved ones — Alerting them to how healthcare professionals are treating the injured and ill as well as how to stay safe
  • Employees and their families — Communicating about when staff should report to work and any safety concerns
  • Local residents — Telling those nearby about health and safety precautions
  • Government officials — Advising how the crisis will affect officials’ constituents
  • Corporate management — Conveying information about damage and how long the crisis will last
  • Partners — Reaching out to determine how organizations can work together
  • Suppliers — Noting what equipment and tools the facility will require
  • News media — Announcing what happened, injuries, and how the organization will accommodate those in need

Crisis Communication Methods

Although the preferred method for initial outreach in any message is face to face — even if it’s done remotely — follow-up announcements can employ a variety of tools. Among the methods for communicating are:

  • Corporate website
  • Social media
  • Call center
  • Press kits (including items such as photos, videos, biographical information, data, quotes, and contact information)
  • Presentations to stakeholders

Tips for Crisis Communication

Effectively communicating about a healthcare crisis requires empathy, honesty, and expertise. Whether providing tips for managing illness caused by an environmental disaster or answering media questions about injuries, some basic rules for communication include:

  • Showing empathy to those affected
  • Reiterating information so audiences can absorb the message
  • Paying attention to audiences’ concerns and perceptions of the situation
  • Identifying the problems the organization is addressing and how it is addressing them
  • Sharing enough information to be clear without clouding the message with unnecessary detail
  • Being open about what isn’t known yet as well as what is known
  • Exercising caution when dealing with confidential information
  • Providing information through a variety of channels, depending on the technology available
  • Emphasizing a commitment to caring for those in need during the crisis
  • Providing opportunities for questions

Erring on the side of over-communicating is important. Leaving patients, employees, and the public to wonder about the facts can lead to the spread of misinformation.

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Develop Bold Leadership Skills for a Healthcare Crisis

Effective healthcare crisis management focuses on helping internal and external stakeholders, planning for short-term and long-term impacts, and using effective communication and collaboration. If you want to equip yourself to provide brave leadership during a healthcare crisis, explore the Maryville University online Bachelor of Science in Healthcare Management degree program.

The program prepares future healthcare leaders to manage during a crisis by focusing on subjects such as management, human resources, communication, and IT. And it offers the flexibility of online education.

Discover how Maryville’s BS in Healthcare Management can help you reach your professional goals.

 Recommended Reading

Bachelor of Science in Healthcare Management Careers

Disaster Preparedness: Nurses on the Front Line

Emergency Operations Plan: 6 Key Elements Checklist for Hospitals

What Is Healthcare Management, and How Can Technology Improve It?


American Red Cross, Types of Emergencies

Center for Creative Leadership, “Communicating in a Crisis: What, When, and How”

Center for Creative Leadership, “How to Lead Through a Crisis”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Communicating During an Outbreak or Public Health Investigation”

The Conversation, “How Leadership Matters in Healthcare — Especially in a Crisis”, Disaster Recovery Plan Template, “Tips for Crisis Management in Healthcare”

Forbes, “Crisis Leadership in Real Time: 8 Pandemic Best Practices”

Gallup, “What Healthcare Workers Need from Leaders in COVID-19 Crisis”

Harvard Business Publishing, “How to Communicate in a Crisis”

The Hastings Center, “Ethical Framework for Health Care Institutions Responding to Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19)”

Healthy Workforce Institute, “3 Common Challenges Healthcare Leaders Are Facing During Crisis”

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The King’s Fund, “Covid-19 Recovery and Resilience: What Can Health and Care Learn from Other Disasters?”

Medi Leadership, “Six Actions for Healthcare Leaders During a Pandemic Crisis”

NBC News, “9/11 First Responders Begin to Feel Attack’s Long-Term Health Effects”

PwC, “Top Health Industry Issues of 2021: Will a Shocked System Emerge Stronger?”, Crisis Communications Plan

Smartsheet, “How to Build an Effective Crisis Management Team”

TechTarget, “Roles and Responsibilities of a Crisis Management Team”

Tucker/Hall, Crisis Management Team Roles and Responsibilities

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “The Critical Role of Healthcare Professionals During the COVID-19 Pandemic”

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