When an apology is best, but is not nearly enough given the error’s weight


Dr. Daniel Varga is having a bad week.

He’s chief clinical officer for Texas Health Resources, the medical group that oversees Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.

As everyone likely knows, that’s the hospital responsible for treating America’s “index” patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, who died of Ebola Oct. 6. Then two nurses caring for Duncan contracted the disease due to inadequate procedures at the hospital. And one took a weekend trip from Dallas to Cleveland and back.

There would be a Saturday Night Live skit in all of this if it weren’t so deadly serious.

Varga, who had the unenviable task today of testifying before Congressional committees, apologized for his hospital’s shoddy response. That’s good. And, he promised to do better in the future. That too can be beneficial. But six months from now, if Ebola is raging through the American population, neither will matter.

Varga said that “unfortunately, in our initial treatment of Mr. Duncan, despite our best intentions and a highly skilled medical team, we made mistakes.”

“We did not correctly diagnose his symptoms as those of Ebola. We are deeply sorry.”

In the short-term, we have to assume that Texas Presbyterian’s patient census is down and dwindling fast. Unless patients who want out find no open beds at other Dallas hospitals.

Nurses complained of inadequate training and poor procedures. There are probably hundreds of U.S. hospitals equally unprepared, but Duncan chose this one and the repercussions are everlasting.

The apology was not across the board though. When asked about nurses’ complaints, Wendell Watson, a Presbyterian spokesman, said:

“Patient and employee safety is our greatest priority and we take compliance very seriously. We have numerous measures in place to provide a safe working environment, including mandatory annual training and a 24/7 hotline and other mechanisms that allow for anonymous reporting.”

Really? The evidence seems otherwise.

As The New York Times reported:

Long regarded as one of the finest hospitals in Texas, Presbyterian has faced continuing criticism — first for its initial misdiagnosis of Mr. Duncan, which delayed his care and placed others at risk; then for issuing contradictory statements about why its doctors did not suspect Ebola; and now for failures in safety protocol that led to the infections of two of its own. If the hospital has served as a canary in a coal mine for the country’s Ebola response, the results have not inspired confidence.

Canaries were placed in coal mines because gas fumes killed them faster than it killed miners. That’s not a great role for a hospital.

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 and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. 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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