Medical Center: Misinformation Campaign

COUNTERACTING A MISINFORMATION CAMPAIGN

Convincing Key Audiences that a Hospital is Acting in Patients' Best Interests

Our client, a leading regional medical center, has earned a reputation for innovative approaches toward patient care. The medical center, a well-managed non-profit corporation, was in the midst of constructing a state-of-the-art cardiac care center requiring a total investment upwards of $40 million. This facility would make the hospital a major player in the highly lucrative, but also very competitive, field of advanced cardiac care.

Background and Situation Analysis

Following hard-won state approval for its new cardiac unit, the medical center assumed that it could turn its attention to the construction of the facility and hiring of staff. What our client didn't count on was that its critics, particularly a hospital with a cardiac center that was 50 miles away, were not about to abandon their campaign to derail any competition.

The first visible signs of a continuing campaign to make certain the cardiac unit was stillborn came when the medical center announced the policies for the unit. Specifically, in order to utilize the unit, cardiologists had to agree to refer all their patients to the hospital's cardiac unit. Moreover, the medical center, after studying other centers, determined that a dedicated team of staff surgeons, angioplasty specialists, anesthetists, and nurses needed to perform all procedures if patients were to enjoy a high rate of successful outcomes. These policies had major negative financial implications not only for the competing cardiac center that was 50 miles away but also for local cardiologists whose practices were affiliated with the competing center.

A small band of cardiologists who felt threatened by these policies quickly launched a multi-front assault on the policies and succeeded in getting the attention of state officials and the news media by claiming that the medical center was interfering with the physician-patient relationship. They spread misinformation to the legislators and the public claiming that the medical center was intent on denying patients their choice of their cardiac surgeon or angioplasty specialist. Legislators quietly enacted a law allowing the state to reopen the Certificate of Need granted the cardiac unit, and the state health commissioner indicated a desire to revisit the medical center's certificate. The possibility of crippling conditions being imposed on the medical center raised serious concerns among the medical center's bankers, who worried that it jeopardized a planned bond issue to finance the unit. The change in the law greatly complicated efforts to recruit staff, who suddenly wondered what kind of environment they would be practicing in.

Caught off guard by the reaction, the medical center dropped its policy regarding admissions for the unit but stuck by the staffing policy. Sensing that it still was losing in the court of public opinion, the medical center turned to Nicolazzo & Associates for strategy and execution in winning over state officials and opinion leaders to its policy.

The Plan

A Nicolazzo & Associates team quickly assessed the situation and determined that the medical center required a multi-pronged communications plan for a broad spectrum of audiences to stem the tide of opinion and forestall new regulatory conditions on its Certificate of Need. In other words, the client needed to shift from a defensive posture into an offensive mode. The keystone of the plan was to develop a tightly reasoned explanation using third-party data to demonstrate that the staffing policy would lead to better patient outcomes. The argument needed to become the foundation for all forms of subsequent communications. Next, Nicolazzo & Associates determined that this communications battle needed to mobilize allies and take the communications fight to the streets - in person before key community groups and editorial boards, and in ads. The third component of the strategy was to rebuild trust and rapport with key state officials through a process of one-on-one engagement and education. Lastly, the client needed to reinforce the importance of the cardiac unit to the region from health care, quality of life, and economic standpoints.

One of the challenges facing our communications stemmed from two facts. The competing hospital usually delivered its messages through allies and never spoke publicly on the issue. Secondly, Nicolazzo & Associates determined that, though the critics clearly were motivated by their personal financial interests and not patient care, our client needed to focus its messages on what's best for its patients.

In the months that followed, the medical center and Nicolazzo & Associates developed a definitive White Paper buttressing the policy, mounted a wide-ranging series of community meetings, instituted ads selling the benefits of the staffing policy and the cardiac unit, announced the hiring of key staff members, recruited key allies, engaged the news media on a proactive basis, and began repairing relations with state officials.

The Results

Within six months of initiating a concerted communications efforts, the client had accomplished the following, with Nicolazzo & Associates' assistance:

  • Convinced state officials not to reopen the cardiac unit's Certificate of Need.
  • Successfully recruited the director of the cardiac unit, overcoming initial misgivings due to uncertainties caused by critics.
  • Secured editorial support for its staffing policy from a leading daily newspaper.
  • Reversed public opinion on the soundness of its staffing policy.
  • Galvanized support within the medical center for its policy.
  • Assuaged the concerns of the medical center's bankers.
  • Largely silenced critics.