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Hospital CEO Apologizes, Discusses Changes in Response to Lawsuit

So often when the media reports about a lawsuit filed against a hospital or nursing home, the PI attorney will share his or her story in great detail, and, in response, the healthcare organization will say "No comment," or they will issue a terse statement such as "We don't comment on pending litigation," or -- my favorite -- hide behind HIPAA. This "strategy" makes hospitals and nursing homes look like buffoons. It creates the impression of a cover up, destroys trust with the public, which leads to more litigation down the road. In our society today, the majority of consumers simply do not trust hospitals, nursing homes, or physicians to tell the truth when something goes wrong, and this "no comment" strategy feeds that perception. In a 2014 blog post, I argued that hospitals and nursing homes should respond to litigation stories in the following manner:

"We want the public to know that our hospital addresses all complaints - including lawsuits - in a very serious fashion, and we are sorry this situation happened with the Smith Family. We look forward to working with the Smith Family and their attorney to discuss their concerns in a fair and expedited manner for both sides. In the meantime, we ask the public to withhold judgment about this lawsuit, including posting negative comments on social media. No family enters lightly into a lawsuit, and our doctors and nurses try to do their best every day. Instead, we ask that you keep the Smith Family and our doctors and nurses in your thoughts and prayers during this difficult time. Thank you."

Well, perhaps this message is starting to resonate with healthcare executives. The Oregonian newspaper recently reported about a lawsuit being filed against Providence St. Vincent Medical Center over the mix up of dead babies, and a grieving family receiving the wrong ashes. The family is suing for $3 million due to emotional distress. Providence St. Vincent's CEO Janice Burger apologized in a statement to the newspaper and promised "immediate changes." Here Burger's statement to The Oregonian: "All of us at Providence are deeply sorry for what happened, and we regret the emotional and spiritual pain and distress we have caused this family. We strive to care for each person we serve with compassion and excellence. It saddens us if an error is made, and compels us to learn and work even harder to ensure it doesn't happen again. People trust us when they come to us for care. Incidents such as this break that sacred trust. We have made immediate change to our processes. We want to restore that trust."

The baby boy -- Elijah Maldonado -- died in January 2015 five days after birth due to internal hemorrhaging from his premature birth. A funeral home arranged pickup and transfer for cremation but somehow the body was mixed up with a baby girl who had died three months earlier. The funeral home told the parents not to view the body due to decomposition, the wrong body was cremated, and the ashes given to the family, which held a memorial service and created a shrine for the ashes.

The mistake was discovered when the family of the baby girl (who died three month prior to baby Elijah) finally requested transport and cremation for her body. According to the hospital spokesperson, Gary Walker, in responding to the lawsuit (again, a very unusual move), said the hospital discovered the mistake on June 23, 2015, contacted the funeral home to learn more, but the funeral home contacted Elijah's parents before the hospital could. Walker stressed the hospital was not trying to cover up the mistake, and that they did contact Elijah's parents on June 26, 2015 and met with them shortly thereafter on June 29, 2015. Walker went on to further explain that the babies had similar last names, and then discussed with The Oregonian the changes being made by the the hospital to ensure a similar mistake is not repeated in the future.

Here is a link for the Oregonian story. Hopefully this story will resonate with other healthcare executives as well as lawyers and insurers.

You know, it's interesting....the healthcare and insurance industries have spent truckloads of money on the tort reform movement which, in part, has publicly shamed people into not exercising their constitutional rights. So many honest people who suffer real injuries due to real medical errors are embarrassed to demand answers, file complaints, and receive closure because their neighbors will judge them. So, the tort reformer's twisted and unethical PR campaign has worked. But, when a family actually does go through with a lawsuit the defense lawyers swoop in and the hospital or nursing home shuts up, and looks guilty. That doesn't make any sense! How about flipping this situation on its head? Tell the tort reformers and their sick PR campaign to take a hike and instead follow the example of Providence St. Vincent's Hospital?

In the Sorry Works! Tool Kit, we discuss at great length that your disclosure program should not be contained with the four walls of your hospital or nursing home. Your disclosure program should engage and communicate with your external stakeholders too, including the consumer population, PI lawyers, state regulators, and the media. Today's column is all about taking the disclosure program outside the hospital. To purchase the Tool Kit today, click on this link.

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