Just about every time an international airplane lands at our airport, my phone rings off the hook. It's assumed that a king, queen, or sheik is at the Cleveland Clinic. A celebrity magazine reporter, in desperate search of an exclusive story, once offered me $1 million for the identification of one of our patients. In another instance, a man offered his heart to save a prominent leader under our care in order to do what was “in his country's best interest.” I had to think about that one twice.
We often have competitive athletes, comedians, actors, or other high-profile patients whose visits are highly confidential, but prompt great mass curiosity. The comedian, however, was under wraps until I heard him telling jokes in the hallway to a crowd roaring with laughter. This certainly can complicate PR efforts.
Communications pros work hard to build trust with patients, provide guidance to physicians, and help protect the privacy surrounding high-profile patient visits that often go well beyond their hospital stay. Many people are involved in carefully planning a patient's care and visit, including the medical staff, security teams, hotel management, administration, communications, and others to ensure confidentiality. PR plays a crucial role, as the stakes can be very high for information becoming public.
Federal laws protect patients' privacy, but with electronic medical records, as well as people's natural tendency to be nosy, managing the privacy of high-profile patients can be a real battle. When information is leaked, police reports are made public, and reporters get creative about finding information, much damage can be done and consequences can be severe.
Breaches of confidentiality, intentional or not, can bring great harm to an institution, its employee, and patients. They can cause severe financial penalties for the organization, termination or criminal prosecution to individual employees, and harm to a patient in many ways – embarrassment, humiliation, career damage, and more. A breach can also cause a security risk when political controversy surrounds a patient. In the case of athletes, it can cause career damage. For example, who wouldn't want it known if a big-time football or basketball star had a heart condition or a career-ending injury that might prevent a new contract or provide speculation about on-field performance.
A critical aspect of PR's role in healthcare is to “do no harm.” We're here to put our patients first and always consider their best interest and privacy. The reputation of the patient and the institution is often in your hands.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.