How-To Respond to Crises in Your Medical Practice

Dr. Becker Posted by Dr. Becker on Apr 4, 2017 9:44:04 AM


So much of what we do revolves around communication. That topic is a focus of this blog, largely because we at the company are building a communications tool. Which got us thinking about the importance of good communication when things go wrong. That, in turn, led us to thinking about crises in general - how people respond and how crises can be managed. As we looked around the web and crisis management articles, we pulled some common themes and suggestions, and compiled them here. You’re running a medical practice, so of course we’re not going to tell you and your team how to handle acute medical situations. And any crisis tends to require a similar process as in a medical emergency, so nothing here will be too new. Even so, and even though we’re not a PR firm, we hope that this will be a useful reminder that other situations may come up and help you prepare for them.

PR experts suggest using the acronym CAP to help guide a crisis response: Compassion, Action, Perspective.

The first step, hopefully natural to any medical practice, is to respond with empathy to those affected. Put resources in place to help people manage the situation, whether it is an acute problem (pointing people to a fire exit) or something that you have a bit more time for (call and speak with a staff member).

Action isn’t just doing something, but being clear to affected parties what you’re doing. This includes explaining how you are going to work to prevent a similar situation from happening again, if it’s in your control.

Perspective means looking back and drawing on credibility that you’ve (hopefully) built over time. If a manufacturing plant had five year accident-free streak broken by a sloppy mistake, they would be justified in pointing to their historically good record. The accident, if not a fluke, was at least not just another data point in a disturbing trend.

Throughout this three-step response, there are a few underlying assumptions and actions that also help us understand how to handle crises:


1. Respond


Respond. The ultimate assumption. We’re talking about crisis response, so…you have to respond. Advice we saw from the PR community across the board was that hunkering down and barricading the metaphorical door isn’t going to help. As we’ve all seen vividly illustrated with countless politicians over the years, denying the problem only leads to bigger problems. Yes, there are physically dangerous situations where hiding is the best option, but outside of that you’re generally going to have to do something.

When responding you should - literally or figuratively - look people in the eye. In social media, there’s a thing called “subtweeting.” It’s making a comment about someone without including their Twitter handle so they’re not alerted to your comment. Kids these days will tell you it’s a big taboo, grounds for great offense. Well, the same holds true in the rest of life. If a crisis directly involves someone else, such as a critic, don’t “subtweet” them. Be direct.


2. Assess before you act


It’s also important to respond quickly, but not in haste. Like any medical emergency, a general crisis needs to be assessed first, prior to implementing an action. And, like any medical emergency, a plan (or at least outline) that delineates responsibilities and action items can help reduce the time that this all takes. Since we’re writing this to medical practices full of people specifically trained to respond to life-threatening situations, planning for crisis should be natural.


3. Trust your team


A related point is the importance of mutual understanding and trust within your team. Whatever the situation, it’s vital that everyone know their role AND trust their colleagues to carry out theirs. The image of a trauma bay comes to mind, where the team automatically arranges itself around the patient and, with no distraction or drama, provides a clear and concise head-to-toe assessment. Everyone around the table walks in with the understanding that everyone else will get it right. The same should hold true for any situation within your practice, although flexibility and some improvisation may be required depending on the specifics.


4. Focus on the present


Look at what is happening, not what could happen. We understand that medicine, and life, is a chess board. Care teams must be aware of the potential consequences of a particular intervention, looking down the line to ensure they aren’t further endangering the patient - or that if they are, it is a necessary, calculated risk. Again, we’re not commenting on your team’s area of expertise. However, one of the notes from crisis response experts was to focus on the present, dealing with what’s in front of you. This seems to be in line with the risk of analysis paralysis, where we tend to think about so many possible permutations that we freeze up. Make the best decision possible and go from there.


5. Find the lesson in crisises


One more note. If a crisis isn’t yours, you can still use it to your advantage. First, don’t make it worse. Take it seriously. It should go without saying that you don’t want people within your practice to make light of a situation or make inappropriate comments about it or the people involved. Unfortunately, it needs to be said because it happens. Secondly, find the lesson in the crisis. If another practice, or a hospital system had a data breach, take the opportunity to explain your security policies to your patients. If another practice was audited for questionable billing, explain how your system is set up and why that won’t happen with your group.


Not surprisingly, much of this comes down to communications, as we mentioned at the start. Telling people what is happening and what is being done to solve the problem is half the battle in crisis management. With that, we hope you never have to deal with a crisis, but if you do, good luck!