Texas Health Re­sources tries to re­build its bat­tered im­age

Modern Healthcare - - NEWS - By Steven Ross John­son

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.”

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