Although more than 1,000 miles apart, both Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and Jackson Health System in Miami have had an onslaught of bad press recently. One involves criminal sexual abuse allegations, the other a drunken tirade against an Uber driver caught on a video that was posted to YouTube and quickly went viral. As of last week, the video now had close to 6 million views.
Dr. David Newman, an emergency room physician at Mount Sinai, turned himself over to the police after a woman claimed he drugged, groped her and then performed a lewd act when she went to the ER for shoulder pain on January 12.
Newman, 45, has served in Iraq, taught at medical schools, and is an author of a book called "Hippocrates Shadow" about the doctor-patient relationship as well as The New York Times articles. A few days after the woman contacted the police about the alleged incident, the New York Daily News reported the police and the Manhattan district attorney’s office were investigating the case.
Mount Sinai issued the following statement to The Daily News: “We are aware of an allegation that has been made against one of our physicians. This is a matter under investigation and we are fully cooperating with the appropriate authorities. We take this matter very seriously and are conducting our own internal investigation.”
Marcia Rhodes, regional managing director at Amendola Communications, a marketing firm specializing in healthcare and healthcare IT, told Healthcare Dive, “Mount Sinai did the right thing by responding to the press the same day the incident came to light and keeping the lines of communication open.”
After the news broke, another women reportedly came forward and told police she went to Mount Sinai’s ER in September 2015 and was also groped by Dr. Newman. When Dr. Newman was arrested on January 19, hospital officials told The New York Times he had been suspended.
When Healthcare Dive inquired about the status of Dr. Newman earlier this week, Kathleen Robinson, senior media director at Mount Sinai, sent this statement via email:
“The physician has been suspended from Mount Sinai pending the outcome of the investigation, and we continue to cooperate fully with the appropriate authorities. He has not provided care to patients at Mount Sinai since the investigation began. We take the nature of these allegations very seriously and continue to conduct our own extensive internal inquiry. The health and safety of our patients are our primary concern. Since this is a police matter, we cannot provide further details.”
Reputation is everything
Fraser Seitel, an adjunct professor of public relations at NYU and a partner at Rivkin & Associates, a management and consulting firm that specializes in crisis counseling for healthcare institutions, agreed with Rhodes and added the hospital is “doing the right thing” by suspending Dr. Newman.
“They have a well-respected doctor who’s been charged with violating the [Hippocratic] oath he took to prevent harm," Seitel said. "If he is found by Mount Sinai’s investigation, not to mention by the courts, to be guilty, then the institution has to discharge him. The reason why is because the reputation of the organization transcends the individual.”
In fact, a hospital’s reputation may be its most important attribute. A report by the National Research Corporation found 60% of consumers said a hospital’s reputation is “very important” when considering it for future needs.
Hospitals are more vulnerable than other organizations to public relations challenges because of the nature of treating patients on a daily basis. "As these [recent] incidents show, character and proper conduct are often as important to patients as technical medical skill,” Tina Cassidy, executive vice president and chief content officer at InkHouse Public Relations, told Healthcare Dive. Also, physicians are held to a much higher moral standard because they took the Hippocratic Oath, Rhodes explained, so when they harm another person, it’s viewed as a more serious crime.
Trouble in Miami
Dr. Anjali Ramkissoon, a fourth-year neurology resident at Jackson Health System in Miami, whose Jan. 17 drunken tirade against an Uber driver was captured on a video that went viral, also has been suspended. The driver did not press charges.
The hospital issued a statement, which said Ramkissoon had been "placed on administrative leave, effective immediately, and removed from all clinical duties.” The hospital is conducting an internal investigation, and the outcome will determine if any disciplinary action will occur, including termination, according to the statement.
Although damaging to the hospital’s reputation, Seitel described the event as a “painful incident” but added, “it had nothing to do with her practice as a physician,” unlike the Mount Sinai situation. He suggested that she go public immediately and win empathy by admitting her mistake.
Ramkissoon did appear on Good Morning America, albeit a week after the incident, and apologized for her actions. But Cassidy said she thought the hospital could have helped her manage PR after the fact.
The Miami Herald reported Dr. Ramkissoon said she has not been contacted by the hospital and was hiring a lawyer and a public relations firm.
Hospitals can not ignore social media
The power of social media cannot be ignored. The Pew Research Center reported in 2013 more than 60% of people younger than age 40 get their news from social networks.
Hospitals need to keep this in mind when handling times of bad press. “Social media has become a major challenge for hospitals and can be exacerbated during times of crisis,” Rhodes explained. Since hospitals have to be HIPAA compliant with information they share with the press, they can be misperceived as holding back information, she added. “HIPAA and social media are a dangerous combination, which explains why Career Cast has listed PR executives as the 6th most stressful job in the U.S.”
“It’s always a challenge for hospitals to balance privacy with transparency,” Seitel stated. It’s important for hospitals to use a “common sense approach” even if involved in litigation and “do what’s in the best interest of the institution.”
Cassidy agreed hospitals always need to protect their patients first, “which then leads to protecting their reputation – without which their business and mission will suffer. While they also have a duty to their doctors, outside forces will always reveal any perceived wrongdoing – and hospitals need to be ready for that.”
Do hospitals need a plan?
The PR experts Healthcare Dive interviewed said hospitals are so vulnerable to a wide variety of potential public relations crises that a communication plan is essential.
However, Seitel said hospitals can’t prepare for all types of incidents and should instead have a “philosophy of transparency and disclosure that service well in these type of cases.” There are many stakeholders involved in hospitals, so without a plan, it would be difficult for hospitals to “think through what to do in these situations,” Cassidy said.
The main components of a crisis communication plan, according to Rhodes, include a:
- List of the crisis team members (legal, operations, and PR counsel); and
- Process for determining what types of events need to be escalated to the crisis team and how to best handle five crisis scenarios.
Most crises are predictable, so they should be planned for in advance, she noted. “PR agencies can help with risk assessment: We start by identifying the five crises that are most likely to occur and be most potentially damaging to one’s reputation, and help our client with a well thought-out, proactive plan involving all stakeholders."
It remains to be seen how the two hospitals will resolve the recent PR storms.
“Their biggest challenge is the court of public opinion,” Cassidy remarked on the hospitals’ situations.
“You try to do the right thing. That’s the mantra of the PR counselor,” Seitel concluded. “You try to get the client to do the right thing, depending on the situation. That’s another reason why it’s difficult to plan for every situation, each one is different.”