Saturday, October 25, 2014

How does a hospital or health system recover from a devastating reputation hit?

The Ebola scare that is rampant in communities driven in some cases inaccurate  media and social media reporting by  individuals, has had a significant toll on Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas, Texas. Its good reputation damaged has resulted in ER utilization, admissions and revenue declining significantly as reported by the Wall Street Journal on October 23, 2014, “Ebola Still Weighs on Texas Hospital”,  by Caitlin McCabe and Christopher Weaver. The CDC sure didn’t help either in this case.

A 26 percent revenue drop is nothing to sneeze at, and one that most healthcare organizations would have a hard time accommodating.

This isn’t a blog post slamming the mismanagement of the public relations during the crisis. It is well documented over three days, how badly the media and public was handled by the shifting inaccurate responses, lack of clear messaging, and strategy on the part of Texas Health Resources. 

The damage is already done and it could take years to regain a good reputation. Now comes the how does a healthcare provider accomplish this no small feat?

This isn’t only about recovering from Ebola; this is really about trust.  Recovering the trust of the doctors. The trust of the paints. The belief of the community. The confidence  of the healthcare consumer. This in my opinion is about rebuilding the solid reputation that the hospital can care for individuals without harming them.  Changing the perception of,  if they can’t take care of an Ebola patient correctly, how are they going to take care of me?

All the awards that Texas Health Resources Presbyterian has received from national organizations about quality of care mean nothing to patients and the healthcare consumer.   Maybe they never really did anyway?

Where to start?

1.       Commit the resources.  This is going to cost some money over a very long period of time. Understand it and get over it.

2.       Do the market research in terms of quantities surveys and focus groups.  The organization needs to understand the attitudes, perceptions  and choice preferences of the healthcare consumer, patient, community and doctors. Don’t assume one knows all of that already.

3.       From the results of the market research develop the strategy first, then build the key messages and plans. The hospital has one shot to get it right and that starts with the right strategy.  My favorite quote comes from Sun Tzu in the Art of War: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory; tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Strategy first; tactics second to be successful.

4.       Be prepared and budget for doing the research annually to measure the change in perceptions, attitudes and preference choice.  It’s a cost of doing business.

5.       Executive leadership leads and is in front of the community.  No sending the PR person out to answer the media and others. This is the responsibility of the CEO, and on special occasions when needed the Chief Medical Officer or CNO. All others stay away. Media days, community meetings, Q & As. All led by the CEO or CMO.

6.       Become the transparent organization regarding outcomes.  This is probably the most difficult part of this quest but it is absolutely essential. And I do not mean running ads with pretty third party logos bestowing an outcome ward.  I am talking about putting context around the content of the award for the healthcare consumer and patients to understand what it means and why it is important.

7.       Social media is everything here. The healthcare consumer is the new paparazzi. They can help reclaim the reputation of the hospital or they can destroy it in heart beat.  Twitter, facebook, LinkedIn, Tumbler, blogging, the web site, etal and more.  All are useful in the rebuild effort. One can reach more people and delivery more variable messages faster than anything else you can do. So can the hospitals customer evangelists.

8.       Enlist your employees. They are on social media. They are the ambassadors.  Their opinions carry weight.

9.       Events need to be meaningful and genuine. This moves beyond a bunch of employees standing in front of the hospital holding signs that they love their hospitals.  That is contrived, pejorative, and dismissed by the public.   This is all about meaningful action not words. Words and displays of affection at this point in time are empty promises.

10.   One step forward two steps back. Nothing goes smoothly or changes in a short period of time and will take years.  The effort to reclaim the reputation will be affected by everyday events and mistakes. Preventable medical errors when they become public, and they will, may negatively impact the reclamation effort and reinforce the perception that the hospital can’t get it right. 

This too shall pass, but only after some very hard detail work, careful planning and execution. If one messes around thinking one has the answers to fix this it will only get worse. Get professional  help.

Maybe it’s time for the acceptance of the idea that hospitals can't be all things to all people. There are just some diseases that should never even be considered for treatment in a community hospital setting. It is arrogant to think you can do what only a few can accomplish without harming the public safety or the patient. 

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