Non-Profit Health Systems Fighting in an InHospitable Environment

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The Big Story: InHospitable Documentary to Launch November 13

InHospitable, according to its website, “is a documentary feature film that exposes American hospitals’ significant role in our broken healthcare system by documenting patients and activists as they band together” to go up against a large non-profit health system. We’ve only seen the trailers, but the film appears to be a full-throated attack on non-profit health systems, featuring patients allegedly harmed by the featured organizations, activists and academics known to be critical of hospitals.

Patients at non-profit hospital on an assembly line with healthcare bill for the documentary InHospitable

What it Means for Your Health System

We consider InHospitable the latest warning shot at how our screwed-up industry delivers and funds care, and hospitals and health systems are in the crosshairs. If you’re not ready, get ready.

We’ve known for a while the film is coming, and now we have an official date for a premiere. It may not be Michael Moore or Werner Herzog, but the film is real and the trailers include compelling imagery. In one regard it’s not that big of a deal – an indie documentary with 159 Twitter followers and not a lot of traction on Google. But health system leaders should pay close attention.

InHospitable is a recent example of emotional, sharp-tongued critiques of hospitals and health systems that have gained momentum over the last few years. Some of it well deserved, we must say.

You know the issues: The crazy and inconsistent cost of care, “profits over patients,” incomprehensible financial and billing practices, strong-arming payers, insufficient and inequitable access to care, suing poor patients for a nickel, and more. In addition, we’ve written here about the increased scrutiny by the feds of health system consolidation and the chatter of whether not-for-profit providers deserve their tax-exempt status.

By focusing its fire primarily on a single organization exhibiting bad behavior (it appears to focus on UPMC), the film will be all the more effective at elevating those questions for the broader industry.

The screening at DOC NYC is likely intended to generate enough buzz to get the film a slot on a streaming service sometime next year – when the pandemic will theoretically be behind us, and it’ll be easier to ramp up attacks on providers. Even if it isn’t a major success in itself (and, who knows, it could be), it will become part of the self-referential cannon used by hospital critics in their campaign.

So whatever your gut reaction to the film, you need to be ready to push back on the pushback. Here’s how:

Inform Your Board. They may not know any of this is coming. While providers were focused on keeping COVID-19 patients alive, the critics were honing their anti-consolidation arguments and putting the final touches on illustrations portraying hospitals as assembly (or disassembly?) lines.

patients at non-profit hospital on an assembly line

Make sure your board knows about the growing storm, including the existence of this documentary and where it fits into the larger conversation. Last thing you want is for them to be caught flat-footed next summer when InHospitable appears on Netflix.

The education should include specifics about the attacks. We’re seeing more and more portrayals of healthcare providers as Big Business, with all the loaded connotations that idea carries. Big Business is predatory. Big Business cares more about profits than mission. Knowing that’s the representation should help inform the response. Equip your board with messages that explain why growth is beneficial for patients and communities and employees. It’s not enough to say, “That’s not us.” You have to say, “Here’s who we really are.”

Review Your Practices. Or, Know Thyself. Don’t sue patients. Don’t do the things that would lead an entrepreneurial filmmaker to paint you as predatory. Getting bigger doesn’t just make it easier to be accused of bad behavior; it makes it easier for things to slip through the cracks. Always make sure you’re operating in the most patient-friendly way possible.

Activate Your Board. Once they know what’s going on and everyone feels confident there aren’t any dark secrets, your board needs to get out there and engage. Healthcare board members have strong networks. Use them. Push them to reach out to the influential leaders in their orbit and humanize the organization’s work – to connect back to the mission, talk about the benefits of growth, show how they’re supporting the community and employees and either get ahead of or counter the attacks. Also, push them to connect with lawmakers and build or use the relationships necessary to ensure providers have a voice in whatever happens next. This is why you have board members. Time to get them organized.

Build Your Defenses. Now. We know InHospitable will premier in November and could easily get picked up for streaming sometime next year. It focuses on one health system but may name drop others as it looks to connect the dots to the industry at large. Whatever national context is created could lead to regional and local attention, so expect calls from the media. Look through the damaging coverage hospitals have received over the past couple of years (including 2019) and develop responses to those sorts of issues. Make sure your leadership team and board have a copy, as well. Whether or not you see any likelihood that your organization will get pulled into the conversation, prepare as if you will.

This piece was originally published over the weekend in our Sunday Quick Think newsletter. Fill out the form to get that in your inbox every week.

Jarrard Inc.
ourthinking@jarrardinc.com