Empathy, patient privacy key for medical officials during a crisis

Hospital officials are briefing the press about patients injured during the deadly train crash in Philadelphia on Tuesday night. Here are some tips for staying on-message and protecting patient privacy from medical comms experts.

Temple University Hospital chief medical officer Dr. Herb Cushing briefs the press (Image via YouTube)
Temple University Hospital chief medical officer Dr. Herb Cushing briefs the press (Image via YouTube)

PHILADELPHIA: Hospitals in and around Philadelphia have treated more than 200 injured passengers since an Amtrak train partially derailed outside the city on Tuesday night, killing seven.

The fatal accident has put pressure on hospital officials and other medical officers to brief the throngs of media keeping tabs on the federal investigation into the incident and the progress of injured passengers. 

Doctors briefing the press are faced with the balancing act of providing information about injuries suffered, even disclosing details about some such as collapsed lungs and broken ribs, with protecting the privacy of patients.

Healthcare communications experts emphasized the importance of choosing the right official spokesperson and conveying a sense of empathy, as well as having a thorough communications plan in-place before a disaster happens.

"So much of what the public doesn’t expect, but what they want, is a sense of empathy [following such an incident]," notes Brandon Edwards, CEO of ReviveHealth, noting there is also an expectation of competence, organization, and urgency.

He notes that it is key to identify the right person – not always the lead doctor – who can appropriate convey that emphatic message, such as a chief nursing officer.

Hospitals need to make such decisions beforehand to avoid creating a frenzy, Edwards said, noting that comms preparedness should be viewed by medical centers as a "complement to crisis planning."  

Hospital and government medical officials are often in the spotlight after events that result in numerous casualties or other medical emergencies. For instance, last fall, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health were in the spotlight as the federal government responded to cases of Ebola in the US. Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital hired Burson-Marsteller for communications support last October after it became the epicenter of the fight against the disease in the US.

This week, Dr. Herb Cushing, the chief medical officer at Temple University Hospital, briefed reporters numerous times about its response to the incident.

"Every hospital should have a crisis communications plan, and I don’t think it should just be in a binder on a shelf," said Eileen Sheil, executive director of corporate communications at the Cleveland Clinic. "The more you practice, the better you get."

Hospitals need to be cognizant of privacy standards and putting patients and their families first following a tragedy, she added. They can then pinpoint "key messages" that can be shared, like patients’ progress or the type of injuries sustained, as long as patients remain unnamed.

In terms of timing, media briefings should take place whenever there is a "significant update," Sheil noted, adding that it can also be beneficial to coordinate with public officials, like police officers, "so all of the parties involved in the crisis are speaking together."

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