Managing a Crisis in Healthcare

The hepatitis C contamination from a former employee at Rose Medical Center represents a serious threat to the reputation of a 60-year-old medical institution in Denver that is nationally known for its quality of care. Reputations take many years to build but can be threatened by a crisis of this magnitude.

Rose Medical Center is responding well to a terrible situation.The hospital has itself been a victim of a criminal act by an employee.  Below are principles for crisis communications with examples of how Rose is using them.

Steps any institution should take to emerge from such a crisis include the following.

1. Respond quickly and state your values. When negative news hits, it is important to respond quickly to counter rumor with facts.  Even if all that can be said in the initial hours is that the case is being investigated, a general statement is better than no statement. 

Before a crisis hits, organizations should develop key messages about their vision, mission and values that guide their work.  These general principles can be the basis of initial statements. Rose Medical has information about hepatitis C on its home page with many links to relevant information, including a list of doctors who treat the disease.  Beneath the "Hepatitis C Information" headline is the message: "The safety, care and privacy of our patients is our first concern."

2. Reach out directly to those who are affected. Rose has contacted all patients who had surgery during the time the technician worked there and has offered free testing and treatment. When the crisis is one involving injuries and uncertainty,  as with a plane crash or school violence, it is important to set up an area where loved ones can gather to get information shielded from the news media. Those directly affected should have a manager assigned to them to make sure their needs are being addressed. This is not only the humane thing to do; it can reduce the possibility of lawsuits because those who have been harmed feel they are being cared for.

3. Express concern and communicate with those who have relationships to the institution. The medical staff at Rose paid for a full-page advertisement in the Denver Post as "An Open Letter to Rose Medical Center Patients from Your Physicians."   It reiterated the importance of preserving the trust placed in the physicians and the hospital with a pledge to "rededicating our energy …to ensure you receive the highest quality…and safest care that you expect from our hospital." 

4. Communicate with key audiences. Employees are an important internal audience.  Those who will be fielding calls from the media and patients or customers should have instructions on what can be said and who can supply more information. During the days and weeks following disclosure, employees should receive updates about steps being taken to address the problem. Armed with good information, your employees can be effective ambassadors on your behalf to their neighbors and friends. 

5. Monitor social media and news media coverage. It is important to know what is being said about the crisis so that responses can be posted in a timely manner. The 24-hour news cycle and the "always on" Internet greatly shortens the time organizations have to respond.  Information can be bookmarked and forwarded, magnifying the effects of comments made online.

6. Communicate steps to resolve the problem and future risks. As the crisis unfolds and more is known, it is important to share with the media and key audiences what steps are being taken to reduce the possibility that such an event or problem could happen in the future.  All hospitals are sharpening their policies about access of employees to surgical suites and taking other steps to reduce dangers presented by addicted employees.

7. Build trust over time to weather a crisis. Institutions with a reputation of openness and serving the community are more likely to survive a crisis.  The community is more inclined to sympathize than to blame an institution that has a history of dealing fairly with employees, their customers and the public.  In a crisis, such trust can be tested.  Ultimately, reputation can be enhanced by the way leaders respond with concern for those affected and with transparency to the media and other key audiences.