How to Communicate Medical Errors

A recent study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine found that preventable medical error should be considered the third leading cause of death in the United States. An estimated 251,454 people die each year from medical errors, including errors in judgment, skill, or coordination of care; a diagnostic error; a system defect resulting in death or a failure to rescue a patient from death; or preventable adverse events. This toll comes in behind heart disease and cancer, which each cause about 600,000 deaths per year.

This new study, paired with a culture of empowered patients, also known as healthcare consumers, means that hospitals and physician practices can no longer sweep these errors under the rug. Healthcare consumers are constantly digging and researching health information, and social media gives them a public platform to spread the word. So the question becomes, how should hospitals and physician practices respond to these medical errors?

Crisis Communications 101 tells us that the greatest challenge in today’s lightning-fast world of social media is time compression. A delay in response to the issue can make your healthcare organization look like it’s hiding something, or, even worse, that it’s unprepared and scrambling, desperately trying to cover the issue up. So if, when a medical error crisis strikes, your communications team runs to the largely untouched Crisis Plan binder and frantically flips through it looking for answers, you’re going to be in trouble.

The good news is that you have a better option: to be proactive. Patient deaths caused by medical errors are nothing new, but the recent study conducted by Johns Hopkins and its open letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has put them in mainstream media. The time is now to form a strategy for how your organization will respond to this issue. Here are five things to keep in mind while planning:

  1. Damage is proportional to duration. The longer you let it linger, the more you will pay.
  2. Ignoring bad news doesn’t make it go away. It causes spiraling problems that make the crisis longer – and worse.
  3. Weak crisis management prolongs the mess and worsens the scandal.
  4. Successful crisis managers have only one goal: to end the crisis as quickly as possible and return completely to business as usual.
  5. The primary objective of crisis planning is to squeeze as many delays and hurdles out of your response time as you possibly can.

To learn more about the five strategic rules when facing an organizational crisis, download our eBook, What to Do When Bad News Hits Your Healthcare Organization