CAMPAIGNS: CRISIS MANAGEMENT; Playing down a fear of disease

Client: Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital Trust PR Team: In-house Campaign: Drug resistant tuberculosis scare Timescale: June 1996 Budget: pounds 3,000

Client: Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital Trust

PR Team: In-house

Campaign: Drug resistant tuberculosis scare

Timescale: June 1996

Budget: pounds 3,000

Last month four patients at St Thomas’ Hospital were found to have

contracted a drug resistant strain of tuberculosis. Investigations

showed that two of the cases were linked - one patient caught the

disease from another.

The indications were that the hospital’s isolation procedures had broken

down and that other patients or staff might have been put at risk. The

chance of contracting tuberculosis is relatively small, but it increases

among those who have had prolonged exposure to someone with the illness

or who have little resistance to infection, such as patients with HIV.

St Thomas’ identified all those who were at increased risk and decided

that as a precaution they should be screened for the disease. This

amounted to 650 patients and 400 staff.


To inform patients who had been at St Thomas’ that the risk of catching

TB was extremely low and to reassure those with appointments at the

hospital that the environment was perfectly safe.

The hospital also wanted to prove to a wide audience that it had handled

the scare responsibly and to show the media that it was being open about

the situation.


Former patients had to be contacted as a matter of urgency. But as many

of them had been extremely ill while at the hospital, there was the

possibility that some of them may have subsequently died. Clearly,

sensitivity had to be a factor as much as speed.

Rather than take the risk of upsetting any grieving relatives, the

hospital first wrote to the GPs of its ex-patients, asking them to get

in contact urgently if there was any reason why St Thomas’ should not

write to the named patient. The following day, Wednesday 12 June,

letters were sent to the patients.

An 0800 helpline was established to be operational for Thursday 13 June,

the day when most patients received their letters. HIV and Aids

organisations were also briefed.

The story did not break in the media until the official press release

went out on Friday 14 June. ‘We felt there was no way that this wasn’t

going to hit the press at some point,’ says Guy’s & St Thomas’ head of

public relations Matt Tee. ‘And what we didn’t want was for it to start

dribbling out.’

All day on the Friday, Guy’s and St Thomas’ group clinical director for

acute medicine Dr John Rees was made available for interview.


The story was covered in the London Evening Standard on Friday 14 June

and in all the national newspapers the following day. Broadcast coverage

on the Friday included the main ITV and BBC TV news programmes, Sky, BBC

Radios 1, 4 and 5, IRN, GLR, Capital, Heart and London Newstalk.

‘I was pleased with the coverage,’ says Tee. ‘I felt it didn’t

sensationalise what happened.’


The sensitivity and openness with which the Trust handled the scare

limited the damage to its reputation. With no hint of a cover-up or

negligence to latch onto, the media soon lost interest in the story.

‘I thought they handled it well,’ says the Times health correspondent

Jeremy Laurance. ‘Of course they tried to put the best gloss on it, but

they were very straight and didn’t try to hide it.’

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