Crisis Communication Tips for Medical Practices

June 7, 2013

The unexpected can happen at your medical practice. But you can take proactive steps to get you and your team ready. Here's how.

I know: It can’t happen to you, right? "It" is anything negative that affects your medical practice or your reputation. And believe me, it can happen to you.

A case in point: Once upon a time, at a large teaching hospital, far, far away, I worked with a surgeon who routinely let fourth-year residents he trusted start surgical cases without him physically being in the operating room. Need I go on? A resident began an arteriovenous fistula repair on the wrong arm. The procedure was stopped and corrected far too late after the surgeon finally entered the room and caught the mistake.

From a public relations standpoint, I shake, I shudder, I cringe in fear to this day at the thought of what must have transpired afterward. And, once again, it can happen to you.

You may not have been there, you may not have caused it, but you are ultimately responsible for it. So before something adverse happens, here is what you should do.

Start thinking in terms of when something happens: No matter how lucky you are or your practice has been in the past, this mindset will help save you and your team in the event something hits the fan. Be prepared for any adverse event.

Create a crisis communications team: This will depend on the size and complexity of your organization. You will need, at a minimum, someone to direct the operation, a person who can take charge and yet stand back at times and look at the big picture. Secondly, you should appoint a spokesperson who can be the "face" of the organization and skillfully represent it. This person needs to be calm under fire. If you have ever been in a position where you had to answer important questions, being fired at quickly from many different sides, coming from a hostile audience, then you know what I am talking about. You need gatekeepers, trained to answer the telephone and respond appropriately to outside requests for information. You also need someone to keep watch on social media sites and respond appropriately. They need well thought out, strategically planned and prepared messages they can post on social media sites, preemptively.

Form a plan: Start with methods to contact your team if they are away from the office. By text messages, recall numbers, Facebook - whatever works. The situation will dictate how fast you must inform the rest of the team and whether or not everyone must physically meet. Make sure everyone on the team knows how to contact the other members of the team. Also: Who is in command? What is the line of command? What are the duties of each member of the team? Plan and prepare.

Hold regular team meetings: Invent scenarios that could happen to your practice. First, create the obvious ones and then, come up with some off-the-wall scenarios. If your office caught on fire that day, don’t you think that the way your team handles the news of the event matters? I would suggest that not only does it matter but that it is a wonderful opportunity to capitalize on the situation, by demonstrating at every opportunity your caring and professional attitude.

Develop clear messages, holding statements and guidelines: Know what your team will say before it is asked. Statements should always be completely honest, transparent, and reflect your organization’s willingness to be helpful and desire to solve any problem or mistake. "Holding statements" are those created basically, to buy the team some time to investigate the situation further or to come up with the correct course of action. Your organization should have set core values - a vision and mission statement already in place - which may have been previously set forth, in your promotional materials, on the Web, or in print. Always try to reinforce these values with your statements.

Be prepared: Be ready for how fast things happen, how fast a situation can change, how quickly, and by what vehicles news travels. Realize that things get misinterpreted and misinformation travels as fast as light these days; whereas, sound information, travels as fast as well, sound.

Robert Thomsonis a healthcare marketing and communications strategist who works in the Chicago area. His areas of interest include patient service evaluation and training, practice promotion, crisis communication planning, and public relations. Thomson has more than 25 years of medical experience, as a surgical technologist for UNC Health Care's cardiothoracic, vascular, and abdominal transplant team and as a surgical device salesperson. He also served 13 years of active duty as a Navy Hospital Corpsman and taught surgical technology at the Naval School of Health Sciences in San Diego. E-mail him here.