Bad Press

Molly Rowe, Senior Editor, Leadership , November 30, 2007

Whenever 15 or so Down-eastahs converge for turkey, stuffing, and my aunt's world famous yeast rolls, the conversation is guaranteed to entertain. The loudest and most inclined to interrupt always prevails, and the annual conversation topics are easy to predict: politics, local gossip, and a bunch of bad jokes (usually at my expense).

This year, a 4th topic was added to the list: Healthcare. Even in Downeast Maine, they're talking about medical errors. Everybody knows somebody who's had a bad healthcare experience: be it a hospital-acquired infection, a medication error, or just poor communication. Nothing proves that more than the latest medical screw-up: Dennis Quaid's newborn twins reportedly receiving more than 1,000 times the intended dosage of a blood thinner at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center--an incident eerily similar to the overdose that killed three infants at Clarian Health in Indianapolis only a year ago.

CEOs are the first to tell me that hospitals aren't the safest places to be. I can't count the number of times I've been warned, "Stay out of the hospital. Nothing good happens in hospitals." So, as I sat and listened to my family's skepticism, I couldn't help but wonder: Has the public taken a vote of no confidence in American healthcare? And if so, how will this affect healthcare down the road?

While I'm writing about the financial costs of healthcare-acquired infections and other groups are touting the prevalence of medication errors, we may be missing the long-term effects of all this bad press. With the population growing older by the minute, proper medical maintenance is increasingly important, but the public is more skeptical of healthcare than ever before.

What effect will today's medical errors (and resulting media attention) have on tomorrow's patients? How do I convince my father that he still needs regular colonoscopies when the news is constantly filled with patient horror stories? How do I convince my aunt that the "risks" of a hospital visit are worth the benefits of a mammogram? Will all of our efforts to push "consumer-driven healthcare" and disease management be offset by, well, a lot of bad news?

Only time will tell the long-term effects of today's highly publicized medical errors, but, as a healthcare leader, you may want to start thinking about it. All the creative marketing in the world can't offset the power of a few bad news stories. Leaders must figure out a way to empower patients without scaring them out of the hospital all together. How do you make up for today's negative press? How do you ensure accountability in your staff? And, perhaps most importantly, how do you re-instill the public's confidence in your organization?

Molly Rowe is leadership editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at

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