Sometimes it’s good to be aggressive with defense

It’s bad enough when your staff really do make a mistake and the media are directing a lot of negative attention your way. But what about when you’re getting that same criticism but don’t think you’re guilty of any wrongdoing?

That may be the time to step in front of the cameras and say so, suggests Luci Bailly, RN, CRM, director of quality and risk management at West Florida Medical Center Clinic in Pensacola. She says your tactic in such high-profile incidents should be essentially the same whether you think your staff erred or that all the criticism is unfounded. In both cases, she says, you should tell the truth and give the public as much information as possible without breaching confidentiality.

"The public wants to know that it won’t happen again," she says. "If you try to lessen it, hide it, cover it up, there always will be the notion that this is the kind of thing that happens at your hospital. You’re known as the hospital where this bad thing occurred, rather than the billion times you did something right."

Many health care administrators have no trouble grasping that concept when their facility deserves the criticism. They can be humble and contrite while promising to conduct a full investigation and correct any systemic deficiencies. But when the hospital is being picked on unfairly, as many suggest is the case with the switched identities at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, risk managers and public relations professionals often are not as aggressive as they could be.

"You still ought to give them the truth. Give the public the facts of the situation and ask them, ‘Now that you know these facts, do you see how we’re being treated unfairly?’" Bailly says. "Until you let the public hear the facts, they can only draw conclusions based on what they’ve been told so far."

But remember, there are no guarantees. Even if it seems very clear to you that your hospital did no wrong, don’t assume that the public will agree with you even after you provide the whole story. Some people still will take the position that if the tragedy occurred in your hospital, it’s your fault. And admittedly, there can be a fine line between righteously defending yourself and just seeming to be insensitive about the victim’s plight.

"Whether you’re guilty or not, you give them the facts and hope that they are reasonable," Bailly says. "Just remember to be as good about defending yourself when you’re right as you are about admitting when you’re wrong."