In our discussion last week, we started examining the different types of crisis plans required to operate any business, especially one that has or hopes to achieve any reasonable scale. Our first discussion centered on an extreme but timely scenario, the prospect of an incidence of workplace violence , like the random acts of a gunman. This week we look at a much more common medical practice crisis, an event that causes reputational damage and receives media and public attention.
Combine your high profile (think newsworthiness) and assumed high standard of conduct you are assigned as a medical care provider with the threats of increased regulation, liability, media scrutiny, and the destructive and unchecked speed of bad and false information on the Internet and the scope of the exposure becomes clear.
What Kinds of Issues Are Doctors Facing?
Most doctors wrongly assume that any exposure or unwelcome publicity will be limited to issues surrounding their practice; that’s unfortunately not the only case. A review of news articles that cite doctors being, sued, arrested, or investigated covers a wide spectrum and extends in some cases even to members of their family and employees. The news loves to throw in, "A prominent local doctor was arrested tonight…"
The first and most obvious warning is simple; don’t do things, or allow others to do things that you can control, that place you and your practice in a negative light. Even a simple altercation with a neighbor or a DUI becomes newsworthy when a physician is involved and even more so if that doctor is locally prominent. Common examples of things that will get you on the news and detract from your credibility and professional standing:
• Driving while intoxicated or any drug- or alcohol-related offense (or even behavior), including while traveling, flying, or on vacation. Think you are out of eye shot? I’ll bet you already know which congressman from the Southwest was just embarrassed for skinny dipping in Israel on a state trip;
• Any offense involving sexual conduct, or misconduct especially with a patient but this seems to be a no-holds-barred category and you will be named in even remote cases involving the conduct of family members and employees that has nothing to do with you; and
• Any investigative report or government, law enforcement, or task force investigation on issues like billing, prescriptions, or ID theft. Regardless of what they actually find, (or don’t find), just being mentioned is pejorative
An Action Plan for Doctors
What should you do if you find yourself in the limelight? Public relations experts’ opinions vary widely on the best defensive course of action and damage control, but most agree on all the following guidelines:
• Have an Information Officer (IO). This simply means appointing a lead source of contact and information for the media and the public. Pick carefully, it may not always be the best idea to represent yourself in this capacity. Pick someone objective, articulate, informed, and who has the judgment and authority to answer questions on your behalf. Make your staff and family aware of the IO and their role and welcome them to politely refer questions to that person.
• The best defense is a good offense. Put out good information that you control through the IO, make sure it is true and factual and properly disseminated, you want it found first.
• If it’s an issue involving legal misconduct of any kind that requires you to have legal representation, or likely will require you to, check with your lawyer first. Don’t make any public statement either verbally or in writing. Innocent utterances, in your opinion, can certainly be twisted or used against you. In some cases, if your attorney has the personality and control it may be appropriate to have him be your IO, especially in cases involving potential civil or criminal liability.
• Answer what you can. Neither you nor your staff should be perceived as evasive and honest answers like, "I don’t know," are completely reasonable when true.
• Be compassionate. Acknowledge the harm or injury if others are involved in a simple and factual way, as if you were just another citizen who heard it on the news, "We are saddened to learn of the injury (accident, allegations, etc.) and hope the matter is resolved soon…"
• Provide updates and identify a course of action or solution where possible. Show that you are actively working to help or resolve the issue and that you are deserving of the trust and position you had before the issue arose.
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