In the spotlight
Media coverage of a hospital’s moving day brings rewards as well as risks
Few things a hospital does are more expensive than opening a new facility, but the move from one place to another also offers one of the greatest chances for hitting the “free advertising” jackpot—as well as creating other low-cost marketing opportunities. It can also carry considerable risk if the move does not go smoothly and every media outlet in town is on hand to cover the debacle.
According to Children’s Hospital in Aurora, Colo., some 65 different media stories covering its Sept. 29, 2007, move of 111 patients from its old facility in downtown Denver to its new building in the suburbs reached an estimated audience of 5 million people. Over the course of 17 months, there were nearly 125 news reports in regional and local media outlets discussing the new hospital, according to Children’s.
This type of coverage wasn’t lost on the marketing/communication department at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, which opened a 141-bed, $169 million criticalcare tower on Nov. 14, 2009, and moved 63 patients over a six-hour period that day.
“We knew the day of the move was an opportunity to showcase the facility and the care we provide,” says John Howser, Vanderbilt’s director of news and communications. “With the economy being what it’s been, it’s really flattened our marketing and advertising budget, so there weren’t dollars to spend advertising the new tower. … But I wouldn’t have done anything different, even if we had money for billboards and large newspaper ads.”
At Children’s Hospital, administrators had to deal with a delicate public relations issue that came with the move, and it was something that started almost as soon as it was announced that the hospital would be leaving its 250-bed facility in Denver for a new $560 million, 284-bed building in the suburbs on the new Anschutz Medical Campus on the decommissioned site of the old Fitzsimons Army Medical Center.
“The actual process of the move was seven years in the planning,” says Natalie Goldstein, media relations manager at Children’s. “One thing they identified that might result in negative coverage was the idea that ‘Children’s Hospital was leaving the downtown area and going to Aurora.’ ”
To maintain its downtown presence, Children’s opened a new 16-bed facility on the Exempla St. Joseph Hospital campus called Children’s Hospital at St. Joseph Hospital. And, to help counter any negative coverage about Children’s “abandoning” downtown, the St. Joseph facility was opened three weeks before the new hospital opened in Aurora.
In addition to the risk of a negative slant linked to hurt feelings from a hospital’s old community being left behind, is the possibility that the move doesn’t go smoothly and patients’ privacy rights are not respected.
On Dec. 15, 2009, in the far northwest suburbs of Chicago, Elgin, Ill.-based Sherman Health moved 85 patients—including 10 classified as critical—from its old 254-bed Sher-
man Hospital to its new $325 million, 255-bed hospital more than four miles away.
Sherman spokesman Josh McColough says planners had a strategy for what to do if the media made a big issue about any glitches that occurred during the move.
“The first thing our planning team would say is that ‘There will be no glitches,’ and their contingency plans had contingency plans,” McColough says. “I asked them, ‘What would happen if?’ and they said, ‘There is no if.’ They had plans for everything with binders upon binders.”
Howser says the attitude was the same at Vanderbilt.
“I understand that a news organization is a news organization,” Howser says. “But I have to have a certain amount of faith in what we’re doing and I knew that we were leaving a little bit up to chance. If something went wrong it would’ve ended up on tape, and it would have been up to them whether to use it or not.”
At Children’s Hospital, Goldstein says it was agreed that the media would not cover any emergencies or “something unexpected.”
“They honored the request,” Goldstein says. “We basically told them what they could and could not do.”
Chuck Murphy, public affairs editor at the Denver Post, remembers it differently.
“We absolutely made no such agreement with Children’s Hospital—not to publicize problems that might happen,” Murphy says. “We did point out several problems with the move.”
These included elevators not working properly and delays in moving patients, but Murphy adds that “we know of no instances where patient care was jeopardized.”
Children’s spokeswoman Elizabeth Whitehead clarifies Goldstein’s remarks and says there was an “informal agreement” with the media on hand.
“We told them, ‘Everything we do is for the patients’ safety, and we may ask you to step out,’ and they said, ‘Of course, I understand,’ ” Whitehead says. “They all agreed to cooperate if we needed them to step out for the patients’ safety.”
Patient privacy was also respected, and the key is to ask which patients would agree to be photographed or filmed, which ones would agree to be interviewed, and which ones didn’t want anything to do with the media.
Goldstein says a family with a baby in the neonatal intensive-care unit was identified, and a “pool” cameraman followed the mother and child through the move and shared the video with the other media outlets.
“The media played really well with each other,” Goldstein says, adding that hospital officials also gave a briefing while the move was in progress.
Also, to help identify who was who, patients whose families agreed to be photographed had green pennant flags attached to their beds, wheelchairs or in their hands; those who agreed to talk but didn’t want to be photographed had purple flags; and those who were off-limits had red flags. Goldstein says T-shirts and hats were also discussed as possible identifiers before flags were settled on. Murphy says that was a good strategy. “We did consider that reasonable because it allowed us to do our job efficiently,” Murphy explains. “Otherwise, we’d have to constantly negotiate with a public information officer or be adversarial—but it didn’t mean we wouldn’t report any problems or bury negative comments from patients.”
Howser says the local newspapers didn’t show up for the Vanderbilt move, but four Nashville-area television stations did, and each was offered its choice of covering the moves of six different pre-identified patients whose transfer times would be staggered so the stations wouldn’t be getting in each other’s way or in the way of the staff and patients.
“We work with them all the time, so they’re familiar with the concept of federal privacy regulations—if not the nuts and bolts, at least with how they work,” Howser says. “They knew they weren’t supposed to film patients who hadn’t pre-consented.”
A complication they had, however, was that it was all intensive-care patients being moved, so they were looking for the least sick
of the very sick. Because of that, Howser says, “there was really only one patient that was highly conversational.”
In contrast, McColough says some Sherman patients really enjoyed their moment in the sun, and a few even had their hair done for the occasion.
“The ones we identified in advance didn’t need to be talked into it,” McColough says. “It was a pretty straightforward question. We said, ‘There is going to be media here tomorrow and would you be willing to be photographed and interviewed?’ ”
Sherman also had a pool camera shooting video for the media to share, but McColough says some news outlets had two sets of reporters and photographers or film crews with the one team covering the patients’ departure from the old facility and another covering their arrival at the new hospital.
The move started at 7 a.m. and was finished at about 4:15 p.m. with some 15 ambulances transporting one patient every four to five minutes. At least one station had a helicopter filming the procession, McColough says.
“It was a pretty visible route they were taking, so the helicopter got some dramatic shots,” he recalls.
The patients who agreed to be interviewed and photographed had green blankets with the hospital logo on their beds.
“The media were great with respecting that, because there was a whole parade of patients coming through the doors, and they respected those boundaries,” McColough says. “They respected patient privacy and recognized that came first before getting the story or the perfect camera angle. By identifying in advance who’d be willing to speak, we made sure it wouldn’t be a media free-for-all.”
While the media respected the privacy of the 85 patients who were transferred, McColough adds that the reports weren’t all entirely accurate—with the number of patients involved in the move varying in some stories from 80 to 150.
“I don’t know how that happened,” he says.
McColough acknowledges that the federal privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act are not “very reporter-friendly.”
“They have to go through us before they get to a patient,” he says, explaining that the aim of HIPAA is preventing disclosure and inappropriate access to patient information as well as protecting a patient’s identity.
“We also want patients to know, first and foremost, that we’re not just giving their information out,” McColough says.
Moving days have also become an educational “field trip” for other hospitals planning a move. McColough says Sherman’s move was attended by planners from Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago and Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg, Va.; Sherman’s planners watched patients move from the old Lake East Medical Center in Painesville, Ohio, to the new TriPoint Medical Center in Concord Township last October.
Children’s representatives watched their new neighbors on the Anschutz Medical Campus—the University of Colorado Hospital—do part of its phased move into their new facility about four months before Children’s conducted its all-in-one-day move.
Howser says Vanderbilt’s recent move used lessons learned when patients were moved into the new Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in February 2004.
“It worked out very well,” Howser says. “So I knew we could pull it off again and there wouldn’t be any problems—even though these patients as a whole were sicker than the children we moved in ’04.”
Both Sherman and Children’s Hospital in Colorado contracted public relations firms they had worked with in the past to have extra communications personnel on hand to help manage the media. Children’s also hired a company to produce a 30-minute documentary of the move that has been posted on its Web site.
McColough says he would disagree with someone who might argue that this was manipulating the media in trying to milk as much free advertising as possible.
“The idea of having media available for that day wasn’t just expected, it was encouraged,” McColough says. “It was an historic event. New hospitals in the Chicago area don’t open every day.”
At Vanderbilt, the move was preceded by a Nov. 5, 2009 ribbon-cutting ceremony and media tours of the new facility.
“It’s my job to promote and market the services we offer,” Howser says. The hospital “administration felt great about the coverage because it was no-cost publicity.
“But it’s also a legitimate news story—the fact that we’ve added a facility like this,” Howser adds. “Here in Nashville, that’s a pretty significant investment: $169 million.”
Even Murphy at the Denver Post, who says hospitals sometimes seek to manufacture news, says the move to the new Children’s Hospital wasn’t media manipulation or overkill.
“There have been times when dealing with hospitals—including Children’s—when I’ve thought, ‘ Enough is enough,’ but not this time,” Murphy explains. “In this case, I thought the coverage was justified. It was a major news story in its own right.”
Above, the last patient to be transported to new digs for Children’s Hospital leaves the old facility in downtown Denver on moving day in September of 2007. At left, a young patient makes good use of the downtime during her trip to the new $560 million facility in suburban Aurora, Colo.