Texas Health Resources tries to rebuild its battered image
Texas Health Resources suffered a huge blow to its reputation with its mishandling of the first U.S. Ebola patient last month. Now the not-for-profit system has hired public relations firm Burson-Marsteller for communications support. But some observers say the move comes late, and that the system could have avoided some of the problems it experienced if it had turned to outside expert help from the start.
The 14-hospital system, which reported total revenue of $4.3 billion last year, is already suffering financial repercussions. Moody’s Investors Service Thursday revised its outlook on THR’s long-term debt from positive to “developing,” citing financial uncertainty in the wake of the Ebola-related events. The ratings agency pointed to the potential for a negative effect to the operations and reputation of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, the system’s second-largest hospital, which has been the focus of the Ebola outbreak. Moody’s warned that possible volume reductions, damage to THR’s brand or growing liabilities could exert negative pressure on the current ratings.
“Now it’s a matter of closing the barn door post-horse,” said crisis management specialist Fraser Seitel, a partner at New Jersey-based public relations firm Rivkin & Associates.
Seitel said very few hospitals in the country would have been ready for the intense attention that came when the highly regarded Texas Health Presbyterian treated Liberian citizen Thomas Eric Duncan. It initially had discharged him from its emergency department even though he had told staffers he had just come from West Africa and had symptoms consistent with Ebola.
Seitel said THR should continue to do the kind of public outreach that occurred Oct. 16, when the hospital’s chief clinical officer, Dr. Daniel Varga, spoke before members of a House investigative committee and apologized for mistakes made in Duncan’s first assessment when he visited the ED.
The system initially said staff miscommunication was responsible for doctors not knowing Duncan had recently been in Liberia. THR issued a second statement Oct. 2, blaming a workflow issue in its electronic healthrecord system. It retracted that statement the following night.
Burson has received praise for its handling of some of the world’s worst public relations disasters, including when Tylenol was spiked with cyanide in 1983.
Such expertise will be needed to handle the public image problems THR faces from the hospital’s handling of Duncan, as well as the potential for more cases of Ebola among the hospital workers who were involved in treating him and among others who came into contact with them.
Seitel said the hospital should be able to recover from its public relations blow partly because of its good reputation before the crisis. But hospital leaders shouldn’t expect a quick fix. “Over time, they’ll get their reputation back,” he said. “I suspect it will be more long term than anything immediate.”