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
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
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.’