Success Story: Maintaining Message Control in a Crisis
A prominent community hospital knew they faced a serious problem.
An internal audit revealed they overbilled CMS through a series of unintentional procedural errors. Hospital leadership immediately self-reported the incident and reached an agreement with the government.
But there was great anxiety about how the news would be received — both within the hospital and in the community. Located in a small town, the hospital was vital to the local economy, had government officials on its board of trustees and was led by a deeply revered CEO. In addition, it enjoyed a well-earned reputation for excellent patient care and national clinical advancements.
Yet, government officials sought to showcase this settlement as a model for how CMS and healthcare providers should work together to address healthcare fraud and abuse. Hoping the issue wouldn’t become public was not realistic.
While hospital leaders were prepared for the financial issues – they had set aside money for the settlement – they needed a plan to protect the stellar reputation they had worked so hard to achieve.
Several weeks before the announcement, we collaborated with leadership and government officials to develop a comprehensive communications plan that anticipated and addressed potential vulnerabilities, took into account the hospital’s relationships and strength and leveraged the right messengers. The plan was grounded by several strategic decisions, including:
A Proactive Approach: Hospital leadership would tell their story to the community first, before it was told for them, even in the media. It was important for the community to know that by self-reporting, the health system effectively reduced any unnecessary regulatory hiccups.
Collaborative Timing: We worked closely to ensure the government’s message coincided with ours through a tightly coordinated announcement timeline. The detailed timeline spanned 48 hours and included pre-announcement conversations, an official announcement and follow-up communications.
Constituent Focus: Health systems have a complex web of stakeholders – physicians, nurses and employees, board members, donors, payers, media, vendors, patients, community leaders, etc. Understanding the multitude of perceptions within a crisis situation is key to protecting a reputation. Each constituent has different needs, levels of understanding and history. The message – and messenger – had to be relevant to each one.
Right Vehicles: In sensitive situations, the channel through which a message is communicated is as crucial as the message itself. The hospital would have to leverage multiple vehicles, including phone calls, rounding meetings, press releases, and one-on-one and small group meetings.
The hospital received accolades for the way they handled the situation from all of their stakeholders.
In a front-page news story, the hospital’s approach was portrayed as a model for health systems across the nation. Aside from this story, media coverage was contained to a 24- hour news cycle, and it was fair, accurate and balanced.
As for the rest of the community, including county commissioners, they applauded the hospital for its honesty and proactive approach. Local thought leaders walked away with an appreciation of the complexities and changing nature of healthcare regulation, as well as the hospital’s work to ensure the effectiveness of their compliance systems going forward.
Inside the hospital, nurses and physicians renewed their sense of confidence in hospital leadership because they were told first, they got the full story, and the messenger was someone they admired and trusted.
All in all, the hospital’s relationships with its most valued constituents were tested, yet emerged stronger.
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