Communicating a Hospital Crisis: Best Practices for 4 Scenarios

For hospitals or health systems, crisis communication is a delicate art. These are the institutions people trust to keep them healthy and safe, and events that challenge those values can be devastating to a hospital's reputation. In addition to the longstanding practices of crisis communication — frequent updates, proactive messages and leader involvement — certain scenarios can demand unique strategies and considerations.

Molly Cate, partner with Brentwood, Tenn.-based Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock, provided communication practices most critical for four specific crisis scenarios and the best way to handle these unfortunate events with both internal and external stakeholders.  

Scenario: An incident of workplace violence occurs within the hospital. The most important question for a hospital leader to answer in this unfortunate scenario is whether the hospital is safe. Employees will want to know whether it is a sound workplace, and patients will want to know if it is a safe place to receive care, according to Ms. Cate. Other critical messages to be communicated include what has happened to the employee(s) and what procedures are in place to prevent additional or recurring violence. The hospital should also reiterate its high standards and expectations for all employees, according to Ms. Cate.

Hospitals can utilize additional tools to increase transparency and improve communication with patients, employees and families in time of a violent crisis. "Depending on the magnitude of the situation, establishing a hotline for families of patients to check in on their loved ones, as well as a hotline for employees that either need extra help in dealing with the events that happened, or for reporting concerns, can help," says Ms. Cate.

If not a hotline, hospitals can dedicate a section of their websites to the violence. A shooting March 2012 at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC in Pittsburgh left two people killed, including one employee, and seven people injured. The hospital dedicated the landing site of its Web domain to share key information about the shooting, comments from UPMC officials, counseling resources, a Twitter account and a news release for media purposes.

Finally, communication teams need to closely correlate strategies with the hospital's legal counsel in situations of violence. "Closely coordinating internal communications with legal counsel is highly recommended in this situation, given the regulatory implications that must be taken into consideration," says Ms. Cate.

Scenario: Unionized nurses announce plans to strike in 10 days due to unsuccessful contract negotiations. Strikes can present a huge disruption for hospital and employees. A myriad of events often lead up to these events, so a hospital's communications team should be informed of what factors — affecting both the unionized employees and the hospital — have driven them to the point of a strike. "It's important to let both internal and external audiences know your side of the story in this situation," says Ms. Cate. "What is your organization committed to, what do you stand for, and why aren't you willing to give on these key issues?"

Internal audiences will demand more attention and frequent information in the instance of a strike, but external audiences should not be forgotten. Hospital patients will need to know how this change in staffing may affect patient care. Community thought leaders, elected officials and other stakeholders also need to be informed. If the hospital does not engage the external audience or provide regular updates, someone else will. "Labor organizations will pull them in," says Ms. Cate, "and deliver a strong, emotional story."

In December 2011, roughly 4,000 nurses within the Sacramento, Calif.-based Sutter Health system went on strike over contract negotiations. The system issued a release that outlined Sutter Health's pay and benefits for nurses in great detail, and also shared what the union demanded from Sutter. The message ensured patients that care quality would not be compromised due to the strike, and the release listed the hospitals affected — with a media contact for each — as well as Sutter hospitals that could potentially be affected by the holiday season strike.

Scenario: A state investigation finds patient safety violations at the hospital. Communication teams must achieve a delicate balance in this event: Discuss the safety issue without raising alarm. "Any concern about patient safety should rise to the top of a hospital's communications priority list," says Ms. Cate. One of the best ways to establish transparency without raising panic is by telling the story and "owning it" rather than reacting to it, according to Ms. Cate. "The most important thing to communicate in a situation like this is what your organization has done to correct the issue and to ensure that a focus on patient safety is at an all-time high."

The more swiftly a hospital can shift the focus of its message to its solution, the better. Patients want to know what processes have changed and what protocols have been established to ensure the safety violation will not recur. The use of data can also help hospitals "own" their situation. For example, hospitals can share whether this is the first safety violation, if it is tied to an isolated incident, or whether certain performance scores have improved since the violation occurred.

Internally, stakeholders need to know two things, according to Ms. Cate. One: Precisely what employees can do to make sure an event such as this doesn't recur, and two, what protocols the hospital has put in place to increase care safety. "Employees are powerful messengers and, even if the safety violation took place in an area of the hospital that doesn't pertain to them, they should still be communicated with," says Ms. Cate. "Most caregivers are dedicated and take a lot of pride in their work. They'll want the community and patients to know they're doing everything in their power to ensure care is the best and safest it can be."

Scenario: A whistleblower lawsuit is filed against the hospital by a former employee, alleging Medicare fraud.
Upon learning of the suit, the hospital's C-suite leadership, communications and marketing team and legal counsel need to meet and approach the issue together. This multidisciplinary team should closely design a communications plan in accordance with the hospital's legal strategy. Lawsuits call for especially comprehensive planning, as this is an instance in which a poorly timed message can complicate legal matters. "The timing of any communications or release of information should be closely coordinate with legal counsel as to ensure regulatory entities that the hospital is respectful of the process and timeline," says Ms. Cate.

If possible, the communication team should inform both internal and external audiences that the suit at hand does not call the hospital's patient care or patient safety into question. Employees and physicians will also need more specific information, at the appropriate time, than the public. "Defining how this issue will or won't impact their work and the hospital's financial health is important," says Ms. Cate.

More Articles on Healthcare Communication:

5 Facebook-Savvy Tips for Hospital CEOs
Engagement Communications: The Difference It Will Make To Your Healthcare Enterprise And Your Patients
4 Tips for Improving Communication Between Hospital Executives and Physicians

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