Jarrard Inc. Daily Counsel

How should we deal with staff who speak out publicly about issues our hospital is facing?

There is currently an endless appetite for COVID-19 information from both the public and the media. A prominent part of the story has been the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for clinical staff.

As concern has turned to frustration and anger, doctors and nurses have begun speaking out publicly… on the challenges they face in an attempt to draw attention and resources to the problem. In some instances, these clinicians have been fired in what is being characterized as retribution for publicizing these issues.

This is not a good position for a hospital to take right now. Without knowing the details of any personnel decision, here’s why any health system should think twice (three, four times if necessary) before firing a doctor or nurse for speaking out.

  1. The public is not blaming individual hospitals for the PPE shortage. There are exceptions, but broadly people understand this to be a national failure of preparedness, not the result of local decisions. By firing that nurse for speaking out, you’re making your hospital the story.
  2. This is a moment where the heroics of physicians, nurses and other clinical staff are our only bulwark against a terrifying virus. Firing doctors and nurses for anything that isn’t patient-safety related is tone deaf at best, and at worst can be seen as compromising patient care at the most critical moment.
  3. You will never win this argument in the court of public opinion. Like, ever.

So, what does a health system leader do in this situation?

  • You’re as frustrated with the lack of PPE as frontline staff. This is an opportunity to partner with your clinicians, show them that you are allies in a shared fight. People need to see their leaders alongside them, aligned in this unprecedented moment.
  • Hold regular (even daily) town hall meetings and allow your people to vent their frustration and concern. Have your communications leaders work with clinicians on how to leverage social media responsibly. Take the anger and uncertainty people are feeling and channel that frustration to elected officials and the media as appropriate. Be their champion.

Takeaway: The clinical staff of any hospital is its heartbeat. This is a moment that people will remember the rest of their lives, and if they remember you as an ally the goodwill you build in this moment will last a lot longer than COVID-19. If they don’t, they may not give you a second chance.

Tim Stewart