Transparency cures many communications ills

Healthcare is a highly complex industry. Perception is often reality and negative experiences shared in social or traditional media forums can build momentum, affect your reputation, and be difficult to overcome. As such, transparency can go a long way.

The reference to PR pros as “spin doctors” has existed for a long time. I'm especially sensitive to that stereotype when it comes to healthcare communicators, though for some, there is a bit of truth to that description. As such, we must all work hard to display integrity and honesty to protect the reputation of our organizations and ourselves.

My husband, who by training is a lawyer and investigative TV reporter, can sometimes be my biggest critic. Sometimes, he thinks I am the Cleveland Clinic and often holds me to the highest standard. I gladly accept that challenge and responsibility.

Healthcare is a highly complex industry. Communicating issues that impact peoples' health, safety, or financial situations can be tricky on most days. Since we're working with more than widgets, being perceived as dishonest, withholding information, or not being transparent can cause long-term damage to a hospital's reputation. Important areas of healthcare that demand transparency might involve business relationships; patient safety/care/experiences; medical malpractice; operational processes; or services provided to patients at the hospital.

Perception is often reality and negative experiences shared in social or traditional media forums can build momentum, affect your reputation, and be difficult to overcome. As such, transparency can go a long way. At Cleveland Clinic, for example, we require our physicians to disclose their industry relationships with their patients and the public on our website. Sharing this makes patients feel proud of their doctors for developing new devices that help them with their medical issues. Hiding this information could very well have the opposite impact where patients think their physicians are dishonest and greedy.

In medical malpractice cases, doctors are now experimenting with more open dialogue with patients, which includes expressing sorrow and explaining what when wrong. This simple display of transparency has gone a long way to rebuild trust with patients and reduce lawsuits.

Our local newspaper is working on a medical billing series, trying to explain the highly complex process of how a bill moves through a hospital system given the multiple points of care, tests, and touch points a patient experiences during his or her visit. As open as we have been with the reporter, it can also be challenging to explain a process that is heavily regulated and difficult to change to a lay audience.

As a PR pro, you need to know the details of a process or problem that occurred. Know what your institution and leadership are going to do about it. Be a part of that conversation so business decisions and communication development work together in the best interest of the patient and the public. Sometimes it helps to run it past the simple “straight face” test. If it makes you smirk, laugh, or cringe, keep working on it. You're not there yet.

Eileen Sheil is executive director of corporate communications at Cleveland Clinic, one of the country's top nonprofit academic medical centers. Her column will focus on the myriad challenges of healthcare PR and topics related to the management of the comms function. Sheil can be reached at sheile@ccf.org.

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