May 8, 2020

How to Talk to Patients About COVID-19

Written by Yael S. Lipton, MPH, MCHES, Training and Curriculum Development Specialist
Written by Yael S. Lipton, MPH, MCHES, Training and Curriculum Development Specialist

Many people are worried about how COVID-19 will impact their lives and their health. It is an anxious time for us all.

However, by providing your patients with accurate information and support, they will be better prepared to take care of themselves during this pandemic.

Following are simple steps to guide your conversations with patients about COVID-19:


Prepare to talk.

Think about your own feelings, thoughts, and fears about COVID-19. They are real for you. However, patients may have different fears, so make sure to keep an open mind and heart.

Before talking to your patient, review their chart for the following to inform the discussion:

  • Social/familial situation
  • Job situation
  • Chronic conditions
  • Mental health history
  • Age

These details will help you anticipate what challenges your patient may face as a result of COVID-19. To glean more information, use open-ended questions such as:

  • “How is COVID-19 affecting your family, job, etc.?”
  • “What worries you most about COVID-19?”
  • “How are you getting food and necessities?”



Begin with broad questions such as:

  • “How are you doing with your diabetes, asthma (or other health problems) during the pandemic?”
  • “What are you most concerned about?”
  • “What else about your life has changed?”
  • “How can I help?”

Use reflective listening and demonstrate empathy:

  • Listen with the goal of understanding, not responding.
  • “You are right to be worried about [x].”
  • “Can you tell me more about your experience of [x] so I can get a sense of what it’s like for you right now?”

Don’t interrupt. Allow the patient to tell their story and express their feelings.

Notice the patient’s body language (if you can see them) and what it is telling you. Signs of discomfort or not feeling safe may include:

  • Appearing distracted, looking away, or multi-tasking (in virtual visits)
  • Folding arms and/or angling body away from you
  • Frequently checking time, fidgeting, or looking toward the door

Use phrases such as:

  • “It sounds like you are feeling anxious about the virus and what it means for your family.”
  • “It sounds like you are having trouble with sticking to your exercise plan because of COVID-19.”



Respond honestly to questions and concerns.

Correct inaccurate information and myths while acknowledging real uncertainties:

  • “You’re right. There’s a lot of information right now, and I saw that article about [x] too. But there’s also some clear guidance. Can I share it with you?”

Pay attention to your tone. If you are feeling frustrated and tired, it may come across to the patient.

Make eye contact if the patient is comfortable with it.

Minimize distractions. If they arise, make it clear that you are planning to follow up on the topic(s) at hand:

  • “I have to respond to the nurse about something, but what you said is important. I’m going to come back to your medication question in just a moment.”
  • Help affirm the patient’s autonomy and control despite the circumstances:
  • “It’s great that you’re still finding ways to get some exercise in, even though you can’t make it to the walking track right now.”
  • “It makes sense that it’s hard to find time away from others in the house to focus on your health. What moments might you have to yourself right now, even if it’s just for a minute?”


Offer additional information and resources.

Give information about COVID-19 that pertains to the patient’s life.

Focus on what the patient can do, not what they can’t.

Always use plain language. Avoid medical/scientific language. See more resources here. 


Summarize with teach-back and then conclude.

Review action steps clearly and concisely.

Ask the patient to describe in their own words what was discussed and what they are going to do, if anything.

Tell them how they can reach you if needed.

Tell them when they need to follow up.

Leave the door open by saying something such as, “I am always here for you. This is how you can reach me…”


PCDC’s COVID-19 Resources

Through advocacy, investment, and quality transformation, PCDC is committed to helping create the system we need. Learn more about PCDC’s financing options, training and technical assistance services, tips for implementing telehealth, and more.