Healthcare conflicts, not as simple as 'good' v. 'bad'

About a decade or so ago, conflicts of interest in healthcare didn't gain the same level of media attention they do today.

About a decade or so ago, conflicts of interest in healthcare didn't gain the same level of media attention they do today. Organizations had policies in place for such events and those worked well enough, given the climate at the time. Much has changed since then, including new regulations and much tougher scrutiny on hospitals and universities.
 
Many organizations learned the hard way that their policies were outpaced by the changes in physicians' relationships with the industry. Medical innovation has grown dramatically and caused seemingly inappropriate financial relationships between doctors and companies. The end result was a feeding frenzy of “gotcha” articles on the front pages of newspapers across the country.
 
From my experience working at one of the nation's largest academic medical centers, these issues can seriously jeopardize an organization's reputation. And that often starts with the public's trust.
 
After more than a year of seeing these hard-hitting investigative stories, it occurred to me that, in general, reporters felt that if a physician was in conflict, he or she was “bad.” If not, he or she was “good.” Unfortunately, that is far too simple a conclusion.
 
What most PR pros and media members don't fully realize is that conflict issues in healthcare are multifaceted and far more complex than what you see at face value. Some conflicts do exist, of course, but if they can be properly managed, medical innovation can take place to advance care to patients. This process should not be oversimplified and it needs to be better understood by communications pros and journalists alike.  
 
I've worked in healthcare for 20 years; presently at an institution that firmly believes medical innovation is good for patient care. New technologies, drug therapies, medicines, and medical devices can speed up a patient's recovery and dramatically improve a person's quality and longevity of life. At the same time, communicating with transparency and in detail will go a long way toward protecting the integrity of your organization, your doctors, and your role as a communications professional to the public at large.
 
In the near future, the National Institutes of Health will unveil new transparency and reporting requirements for healthcare organizations and universities in an effort to protect the integrity of research funded by the federal government. The challenge ahead for PR pros will be the discrepancy of information publicly available. Reporters will have more access than ever to data that will help them educate the public. As PR pros, it is our job to become experts in this area so we are able to influence our leaders, educate reporters, and, most importantly, do the right thing for our patients and their families.
 
Recently, I heard a reporter speak on this topic. He noted that journalists are required to fill out a 20-page conflict of interest form before being hired at his newspaper. He went on to say their end product “lines the bottom of bird cages at some point.”
 
His point was that doctors and hospitals – and, in turn, those who communicate on their behalf – must take the public's trust and the need for transparency very seriously since their “end product” involves the health, safety, and lives of patients.
 
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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