Digital & Social Media

Healthcare Providers Have It Tough

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I pity the healthcare provider. In fact, I detailed the reasons why managing healthcare reputations is a special case in the October issue of The Public Relations Strategist. Whether it’s because the public holds healthcare to a higher standard or because bad news is inevitable, healthcare clinics, hospitals, physician groups and the like labor under a unique and onerous yoke of reputational considerations that affect  no  other industry. And while the digital age has improved several aspects of the healthcare world, it’s also created a major reputational hurdle for these organizations to overcome.

Common reputational issues include:

  • The public holds healthcare to a higher standard:In healthcare – in the public’s mind – every staffer is caring for patients. So any negative story regarding any employee immediately can lead to the public think: “If this hospital’s employees treat other people/animals/inanimate objects this way, imagine what they’re doing to your Aunt Edna in Room 422!”
  • Healthcare is assumed to be a “calling”:Most people would be appalled to discover that hospitals (nonprofits included) have business plans that specify quotas for surgeries, deliveries, MRIs and BMTs.
And yet, what institution could survive, let alone thrive, without such hard-nosed, dispassionate considerations? Every hospital has the word “caring” in its mission statement, but none would survive without trained, competent businesspeople who could easily step into similar positions at Home Depot, GM or PepsiCo.
  • Healthcare is a well-lit stage:Topics that are otherwise intangible become all too real when an individual is sick or injured. Immigration reform, for instance, is just an academic concept until a pregnant, undocumented Latina shows up in labor at the emergency room. Hospitals, therefore, are forced into a lot of news in which they have no real stake, and can be painted as “for” or “against” positions on which they’d prefer not to have any public point of view.
  • Bad news is inevitable: It’s important to build up goodwill because there will be bad news. After all, not everyone leaves the hospital.

How does social media further complicate these issues? Because one hand is always tied when managing healthcare communications. With the way federal patient privacy rules are written, anyone can say practically anything about a healthcare provider – and the provider can’t respond. Of course, protecting patient privacy is a social good, but in today’s media world of citizen journalism – where outlandish claims are posted and promulgated with no semblance of verification – the table is set for a smorgasbord of slander.

It’s not easy to navigate. In fact, in many cases there is no way to respond without potentially severe ramifications. But when a response is required, there is a formula that serves as a guide:

  • Expression of sympathy, preferably personal. “Our hearts go out to the family of XXX. As parents ourselves, we know the pain of YYYY can be devastating.”
  • Expression of earnestness and urgency. “We take such questions very seriously and have launched our own investigation to get to the bottom of the situation.”
  • Reference to communication barriers. “Of course, legal restrictions prohibit us from commenting on specific cases.”
  • Engagement and/or reference to independent third parties. “We are cooperating fully with law enforcement officials and will strictly adhere to all pertinent federal regulations.”
  • Allusion to transparency. “We will provide additional updates as releasable information becomes available.”

Given all the constraints particular to the business of healthcare, it’s a tough job, one likely to become more complicated before it becomes simpler.

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About the author

Paul Dusseault

Paul Dusseault specializes in corporate reputation, working with global organizations from a wide range of sectors, and helps lead the firm's media relations practice group. A co-founder of FleishmanHillard's Global Media Council, his background includes deep expertise in business media relations and message development, as well as corporate social responsibility. Dusseault, who is a contributing author to many publications, previously worked as a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel.

A FleishmanHillard employee.