Exeter, NH hospital fumbles serious Hepatitis C crisis


The hospital in Exeter, NH is making national news for all the wrong reasons.

The crisis is straightforward. A lab technician with Hepatitis C allegedly injected drugs meant for patients and then refilled the now-infected syringes with harmless substances that were re-used on patients. He used enough so in the last 15 months at least 30 unrelated patients in the cardiac catheterization lab became infected.

Some 870 patients treated at the 100-bed hospital were urged to be tested. Anger, lawsuits, state investigations, feds swoop in. The lab tech faces federal drug charges. His disregard for the patients will answer to a higher justice. Hepatitis C is a blood-borne viral infection that can cause liver disease and other chronic health issues.

Let’s put aside our uneasy fears and frustrations shared by so many that some hospitals can cause more health problems than they cure. Let’s look at how the hospital handled this crisis.

Observers say the private hospital has done very little right. No doubt lawyers fearing hospital liability and enormous insurance payouts clamped a lid on its leadership. Class-action lawsuits have been filed.

Here’s a statement the CEO issued after the FBI charged the lab tech, who the hospital said underwent drug testing and a criminal background check when he was hired:

“It is deeply disturbing that the alleged callous acts of one individual can have such an impact on so many innocent lives. As a result of his alleged actions, people in our community, who in many cases are the friends and neighbors of the 2,300 people who work here, now face the challenge of a potentially chronic disease,” said Kevin Callahan, president and CEO of Exeter Hospital.

On May 31, the hospital’s medical director, Dr. Richard Hollister, held the only hospital news conference to announce the initial infections. On June 14, in an interview with one TV station, Callahan apologized and offered to cover the health expenses of the infected patients.

Otherwise, the hospital’s executives hunkered down, generally refused to talk to the media and provided limited information to the infected.

This sounds like a C- effort on the crisis management scale. A CEO must listen to legal advice. But there are many options still available without admitting liability.

Be open and transparent. Provide background on how the infected lab tech came to work there. [It turns out he’s been tracked through six states and suspected of having Hep C as far back as May 2010.] Open an investigation and lay out the findings. [That’s one of the few things Penn State did right in its crisis.] Keep holding news conferences until the media stop asking questions, or stop showing up.

Apologizing is helpful, but usually just a first step. What are you going to back it up with? Exeter is a small community. How do you reassure people?

Admit your mistakes. Sure this gets close to the liability line, but even the Clarence Darrows of the defense bar hired by this hospital are just hoping to limit the damages. None could have any illusions there won’t be any. Set up and announce new procedures.

Speak loudest internally. We can’t know what the hospital leaders have said to reassure the staff — some 2,300 people work there, after all — but let’s hope it was frequent, widespread and they listened as well as spoke.

These situations are difficult. You can train and prepare in advance for a crisis like this — and every instinct I have says Exeter didn’t — but you can never predict from where they’ll strike.

All you can do is resolve to handle it as openly and thoroughly as possible. That most often means putting the needs of the patients and staff ahead of the needs of the institution.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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