Say You’re Sorry: Rebuilding Trust in a Healthcare Crisis

Healthcare organizations are cornerstones of the communities they serve. Equipped to operate through any number of crises, from natural disasters to disease outbreaks. Trained to operate smoothly in even the most catastrophic of events, hospitals and healthcare facilities can be amazing places of heroism and hope during dark times.

But when a crisis hits the healthcare organization itself, these institutions face a unique set of challenges: a complex matrix of stakeholders and a landmine-filled field of regulatory obligations. Whether clinical mistakes, malfeasance or fraud–the most frequently occurring healthcare crisis triggers–healthcare crises have unique communications and operational considerations. When a crisis hits, it’s an opportunity to engage stakeholders with a straightforward explanation of what happened and how the organization is fixing it.

Seems like common sense, right? Well, in the healthcare industry this sort of approach wasn’t and isn’t always so obvious. In the old days, hospitals would routinely make fatal mistakes, labeling them as “complications,” giving limited insight into the details. And present day, there is always fear of a lawsuit from admitting guilt and responsibility.

As medicine has evolved, so too has regulation of the industry. Many outside regulators now have access to a hospital’s processes and procedures, which has resulted in behavioral changes. Now that institutions can’t hide, they are forced to be much more transparent. When crisis hits, the call for transparency is even more clear.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that there’s any substitute for honesty, especially in this arena. People trust their lives to their clinicians in a healthcare setting. If you lie to them or do something to violate that trust you never get it back. Honesty and transparency in the face of crisis is the single best strategy to maintain or regain trust.

Look at the University of Michigan Health System for proof. When the hospital there wanted to improve communication around medical errors, they established a program to encourage physicians to speak honestly about those errors, explaining what happened and how, and what they will do in the future to avoid the problem happening again. The program also encouraged doctors to apologize. A study of this program showed that claims dropped by 65 percent after it was instituted.

Through a decade of researching and specializing in crisis management, three simple drivers underpin success in most crises–healthcare being no exception to the rule.

  1. Learn the facts. Identify what happened to make something go wrong. Usually in a healthcare organization, the crisis will revolve around one of three issues: clinical mistakes, malfeasance or fraud. Ask the hard question: What happened that made this all go wrong? This means understanding the timeline, who was involved and what organizational systems were leaned on that may have collapsed.
  2. Identify corrective action. This could be a policy or procedure that needs to change, an opportunity for retraining or the need for a new operational system. Whatever the solution, be very clear about it internally to codify it within the institution.
  3. Tell everyone who needs to know, to start to regain trust. Healthcare organizations’ stakeholders are many and vary widely. Patients, the families of patients, staff, community groups, elected officials, state health department, union leadership–the list goes on.

When there’s a crisis, identify the mistake, figure out how to lessen the chance of it happening again (notice I didn’t say “make sure it doesn’t happen again”), then make sure everyone who needs to know is informed. It’s critical the stakeholders hear from the organization directly and understand the message clearly.

And don’t forget, say you’re sorry.

Whether your crisis plan is due for an update or you need to create one, Mower can help. Our crisis team of public relations professionals handles everything from full-day crisis management training workshops to crisis plan creation and on-call support. To start the conversation, contact Maggie Hooper.