Communicating with patients about the coronavirus

THE coronavirus outbreak has now been declared a global emergency by the World Health Organisation, and MDDUS has drawn up a risk alert to guide general practices in maximising communication with patients at key contact points.

  • Date: 31 January 2020


THE coronavirus outbreak has been declared a global emergency by the World Health Organisation, as the virus continues to spread outside China, with confirmed cases in the UK.

As the four chief medical officers from across the UK recommend that governments plan to escalate preparation, and raise the UK risk level from low to moderate, MDDUS has drawn up a risk alert to guide general practices in maximising communication with patients at key contact points.

Social media

Social media can be an excellent way for practices to push updated public health information out to their patients. Patients may be more likely to 'listen' to a post from their own trusted health provider than other media sources. While it is important that patients who need to be seen are seen, providing clear information online can help manage demand and reduce the spread of infection in these situations.

Do – ensure your team avoid giving 'clinical advice' to patients about what to do if friends, local community sites and family post on social media about their symptoms. If individuals feel they need to engage, limit advice to how best to access the appropriate local services/out-of-hours advice and care.

Do – share relevant and updated NHS advice for patients via the practice’s social media channels.

Do – check your contact information is up to date, including how patients can get individualised clinical advice over the telephone, how your triage system works and how to make an appointment if they need to be seen in core service times and also out-of-hours.

Text alerts

Making use of text messaging to communicate public health information to target groups of patients at higher risk is worth considering.

Do – consider if it’s appropriate to send information to identified groups of patients about risks specific to them. This is likely to be permissible under GDPR as it concerns important public health information, but if you are unsure about whether this can be undertaken within the bounds of a legitimate purpose or any other opt-in consent processes you have in place, contacting MDDUS and the Information Commissioner’s Office for input would be advised.


The reception team and front-line clinicians are likely to experience higher numbers of calls from concerned patients, and it is essential that they are supported to manage patient demand in a way that mitigates risk.

Do – review your triage strategy and appointment availability to check that receptionists and clinicians have a clear understanding of red flag symptoms, and to ensure that specific categories of patients are managed to the best of the practice's ability: e.g. patients who have a relevant travel history (or contact with anyone who has), infants, the elderly and vulnerable groups.

Do – make sure all clinicians are equipped to manage consultations over the phone and if a suspected case is identified, that local secondary care infection specialists are contacted for further advice and action.

Do – have an agreed strategy for receptionists who may have to deal with patients arriving at the practice. Public Health England has issued advice to GPs about actions to take if a patient attends a consultation and is suspected to have the virus. These include steps to isolate the patient, limit contact, consult over an internal phone line, take advice, report to local teams, and thereafter decontaminate rooms and equipment.

In the first instance, the reception team should have a room identified – with an available telephone – where they can quickly isolate the patient. They should also be encouraged to provide additional (remote) reassurance to the isolated patient as they are likely to find the experience frightening.

Do – review whether adjusting the outgoing message would assist the reception team.

Don’t – expect your reception team to provide advice to patients. Whilst signposting to other services can be appropriate, make sure the team are including safety-netting statements to patients as part of that process.

Don’t – forget that in times of difficulty the team should be encouraged to take time out when they can, and to check-in with each other. Patients are and should be your main priority. However, unless the practice team make communication with each other a priority, managing safe patient care will be much more difficult.

Further guidance

This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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