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Preventive Care: Crisis Planning for Hospitals

There’s no other setting quite like a hospital. The heightened vulnerability and emotional state of those who are admitted–sick or injured–can be a volatile mix. That is just one reason these environments demand the highest level of professionalism and ethical behavior from administrators, medical professionals and staff. When those standards aren’t upheld, the institution’s reputation and ability to fulfill its mission can easily be compromised. From medical errors to data breaches, disease outbreaks and workplace violence, healthcare organizations are among those at greatest risk for a public relations crisis.

Earlier this year, security staff from the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) in Baltimore left a patient, wearing only a hospital gown and socks, at a bus stop in the freezing cold after she had visited the emergency room. After video of the woman in distress, taken by a doctor who happened to be walking by, was shared widely on social media, UMMC was heavily criticized for failing to provide compassionate care by engaging in a practice widely known as “patient dumping.” The investigation by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services cited the hospital for several failures.

In June, El Camino Hospital in California also came under fire when a video of patient mistreatment went viral. This one showed an ER doctor mocking a patient having an anxiety attack. In a written statement, the hospital’s chief executive called the doctor’s demeanor “unprofessional” and “not the standard we require of all who provide care.” The doctor was removed from the work schedule pending further investigation, and apologies were offered to the patient.

Even in healthcare, most crises can be anticipated and planned for so that small situations are managed effectively and do not spiral out of control.  Here are five recommendations to ensure a hospital is crisis-ready:

  1. Assess vulnerabilities. News programs including 60 Minutes have investigated “patient dumping” and yet UMMC was seemingly still engaging in this inexcusable and inhumane practice. The hospital should have had clear procedures for discharging patients with no known address. Communications staff should work with HR and legal to ensure that everyone delivering care understands patient dumping is completely unacceptable and, in that vein, to take an objective look at all areas where the institution may be vulnerable and at risk.
  2. Proper training. Often, we think crises originate outside our organizations. It would be easy to blame social media for the two crises discussed earlier in this blog. However, both of these incidents were triggered by staff conducting themselves in a way that was inconsistent with the hospitals’ mission and standards of care. While the general public, media and regulators are critical stakeholders, patients and employees are the most important audiences. It’s not just about having the right protocols in place; clear expectations must be communicated to staff.
  3. Define the crisis team. Identify key roles and assign responsibilities. Ensure every role has a backup in case that person is unavailable when a crisis strikes. Remember: highly sensitive issues demand senior level attention. Also, identify experienced communicators who really know how to listen to and monitor social media and who know what steps to take if accusations start flying.
  4. Develop a crisis communications plan. A communications plan should be a living document that can be regularly updated and adjusted as personnel and other factors change. Develop clear communications procedures for crises the organization is most likely to face and map out how to respond — across audiences and platforms including social media. Having at-the-ready holding statements for a wide variety of scenarios will provide organizations with easily adaptable language for a specific incident/issue. This forward-thinking approach can make the difference between responding to media inquiries within an hour or two as opposed to a day, and after several news cycles have come and gone.
  5. Drill, drill, drill. Recent polls suggest that while 75% of organizations have some sort of crisis plan, the same percentage (75%) has low confidence in that plan’s effectiveness. Having a plan is just the first step. Being able to effectively execute against that framework is paramount. Remember, plans don’t work if they are gathering dust on a shelf. Hold annual table top exercises, run through likely crisis scenarios, use takeaways and adapt response plans. Update the plan annually; the phone tree quarterly.

For hospitals and those working in healthcare, it’s not a question of “if” but “when.” How leadership plans for/responds to a crisis will determine how quickly that organization bounces back and whether it sustains any long-term damage to its hard-earned reputation.

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