Words matter: The evolution of complex care messaging

Building the complex care field

By Lisa Miller, Director for Communications and Content Development at the Camden Coalition; Rachel Davis, Director for Complex Care at the Center for Health Care Strategies; and Lorie Martin, Vice President for Communications at the Center for Health Care Strategies

As the field of complex care continues to evolve and ideas like social determinants of health and health equity become more mainstream, it has become increasingly important to create shared language and messaging for those working in the field. Doing so will not only facilitate the growth of programs across the country but may help address the inequities so many people with complex care needs experience on a regular basis.

When the Blueprint for Complex Care was released in 2018, one of the weaknesses it identified was the lack of shared language for the field. Interviewees whose input guided the Blueprint’s creation noted that “complex care has been struggling to articulate a common understanding around what complex care is, what problems it is trying to solve, and the populations it serves.” As such, one of the recommendations that emerged from the Blueprint was the creation of “a set of shared values and definitions,” and to “continue to build on the progress made by the NAM report and the Blueprint for Complex Care to define core aspects of complex care and its value.”

Another nascent field went through similar growing pains. In 2019, the Center to Advance Palliative Care released a report as a follow-up to one done eight years prior. The results of the 2019 study showed public awareness of the field of palliative care had not improved since 2011, and while physician awareness and favorability had improved over the eight years, confusion about what palliative care is still persisted. A key takeaway from CAPC’s 2019 report: Message discipline and alignment is essential to improve awareness and favorability of the field.

The field of complex care is no different. Common core messaging is essential to its continued growth. Because the field crosses sectors and is built upon shared partnerships, the words we use to talk about it matter. By its very nature, complex care requires the forging of partnerships between people who aren’t used to speaking the same language, whether they are community partners working with systems partners, providers speaking with finance, or program leaders seeking to connect with policymakers. As such, there needs to be a shared understanding among all stakeholders of complex care’s value at multiple levels, the problems it addresses, and the areas in which it has the most impact. 

To that end, the Camden Coalition’s National Center partnered with the Center for Health Care Strategies to create “Talking about complex care: A guide for clear and effective communications.” Funded by The SCAN Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the guide provides broad messages for communicating the value of complex care, and establishes core language for those in the field that can be modified based on audience. It organizes key messages within three levels: individual, community, and system, and includes messages at each level to help stakeholders talk about:

  • the problems that complex care addresses;
  • the solutions that complex care offers;
  • the impacts that complex care achieves; and
  • the ways complex care advances health equity.

The goal of this messaging guide is to provide those in the complex care field with the language they need to help strengthen and expand the field at large as well as deepen the commitment to the adoption of complex care programs and strategies across the country. 

While this new language reflects the evolution of the field and the political and social changes that have occurred since the Blueprint’s release four years ago, it is important to note that the values that prompted the Blueprint’s creation have not changed. As such, one element of this new guide that was not included in the original Blueprint is how complex care advances health equity by creating sustainable systems of care — it identifies and documents where and who the existing delivery system fails to adequately serve and builds ecosystems of care through cross-sector partnerships. This new focus on equity reflects what has always been the foundational goal of complex care: to address the root causes of poor health that defy existing boundaries among sectors, fields, and professions through person-centered, equitable, cross-sector, team-based, and data-driven care.

As the field of complex care continues to grow and evolve, so must the language we use if we want our messaging to resonate with funders, providers, and partners. We hope those in the field will find this new guide useful and helpful in their work.