Pediatric Hospital: Infant Mortalities

MANAGING A HOSPITAL'S WORST NIGHTMARE

Unexplained Rise in Infant Mortality

Our client is regarded as one of the leading children's health care facilities in the world. It is a leading research institution and teaching hospital and is affiliated with one of the nation's most prestigious universities. The hospital's reputation is the lifeblood of its business. Preserving that reputation is essential.

Background and Situation Analysis

This hospital runs a neonatal intensive care unit. By definition, the incidence of mortality in a neonatal intensive care unit is high. When the hospital suddenly experienced an unexpected increase in infant deaths over a short period of time, it quickly concluded that exogenous factors - a virus or bacteria - might be causing the problem. Decisive action was called for, including enactment of a crisis communications plan to manage both internal and external communications.

The hospital's response was early and aggressive. It immediately closed the neonatal unit and relocated patients. Then it undertook a concentrated investigation with extreme measures of detection, research and tracing, using outside teams of investigators and outside laboratories.

The role of communications became critical, particularly because all of these non-routine actions were being taken before the cause of death was determined.

The Plan

The hospital needed to communicate openly with interested parties while at the same time preventing any opportunity for leaks to the media. Until it had the facts and conclusive information with which to fully address questions, any partial responses could have the potential to create public fear, panic and concern about the safety of the hospital. A tabloid headline touting "an alien killer virus" could have severely and permanently damaged the hospital's reputation.

Communications objectives included:

Phase I: External

  • Keeping federal and state Departments of Public Health adequately informed about developments.
  • Keeping associated hospitals (particularly referral sources) informed on a "need-to- know" basis.
  • Communicating actively and thoroughly with families of the deceased as well as with families of other possibly affected patients.
  • Delaying any media coverage until after the laboratory findings were available and the problem was eliminated.
  • Intensifying internal communications to quell rumors about the closing of the neonatal intensive care unit.

Phase II: External

  • When the findings about the cause were conclusive, placing the information initially in the hands of key "opinion leaders" and responsible journalists who would set the tone for appropriate coverage of the incident.
  • Assuring the media that the hospital quickly recognized and reacted to the problem and undertook all necessary measures to manage and eliminate it.

The Results

  • The bacterial cause of the deaths of the infants was identified and isolated.
  • The incident was reported in a measured, responsible fashion.
  • There were no instances of sensationalized, over-reporting and no tabloid headlines.
  • The hospital emerged with its superb reputation intact.
  • The handling of the crisis was lauded in the health care industry and crisis communications circles as a "case history" in how to effectively manage a complex medical problem.
  • No litigation resulted.