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Nipping a crisis in the bud
Story Number is : 032904108
Consultant, Columnist
Hospital Newspaper

Those who have been reading my column for the past year know that I focus on two closely related subjects – dealing with the media (especially during a crisis) and handling angry people.
On one hand, a news story or an investigative report about some alleged problem at your hospital could lead to a lot of very upset people. On the other hand, just one very angry person, if he feels he has not been treated well, could get the ear of a reporter looking to make a name for herself or looking to fill some space on a slow news day. In either case, it spells trouble.

Every single day there are numerous times when a simple interaction could become an incident. Let me give you a personal example.

Starting off a bad day at the hospital

I volunteered to take my 83-year-old mother-law to the hospital for a baseline kidney function test. When I called to schedule the test, I was told it was set for 8:30 a.m. At the end of the conversation, the lady in scheduling said to be sure to be at the hospital a half-hour before the test so we could do all the paperwork.

Telling my mother-in-law I would pick her up at 7:30 sent her into a tizzy. She was moving very slowly, so she had to get up at 6:00. When we arrived at the hospital at 8:00, the lobby was dark. The security guard informed me that they didn’t open until 8:30. It turned out that when the scheduler told me 8:30, she meant for us to be there then; the test wasn’t until 9:00. This miscommunication was probably as much my fault as it was the scheduler’s. The lesson? A clarifying statement like this as we ended our conversation like would have prevented the problem: “So her appointment is for 9:00; please be here at 8:30.”

Things get worse

The paperwork behind us, I escorted my mother-in-law – already a bit shaky -- to the radiology suite. The first question out of the radiology technician’s mouth was “Where are the blood test results from your doctor?” We were totally taken aback. We had been given no blood test results. Her doctor was supposed to have faxed them to the hospital. All three of us became upset. The technician said, in a harsh tone of voice, “Well, we can’t do ANYTHING today without this information from your doctor.” No compassion for the patient. No attitude of, “Let’s see how we might be able to rectify this.” Just a cold statement of the needs of the hospital. My mother-in-law started to cry and I became angry. “Surely there is some way you could contact the doctor’s office to see if he can’t fax the results now instead of putting us all through all of this again!” The technician went to get a nurse who, obviously already stressed, indicated that she would TRY, but informed us that the doctor might not be in his office this early.

Forty-five minutes passed -- slowly. Both my mother-in-law and I became more upset. Finally, Ray, one of the other technicians, came over and said, “I understand you folks are having a rough day.” He expressed concern for both of us and offered to get us a cup of coffee or a glass of water. He commiserated about how difficult it could be on everyone when there was a mix-up like this. He recognized how hard it was on the patient and a caregiver when the hospital’s hands were tied because they had to follow certain protocols. He comfortingly patted both of us on the shoulder and said he would go see if he could find out the status of the situation. Those few sentences went a long way to calming both of us down. He didn’t overturn any rules. His attitude demonstrated caring and concern – and it made a world of difference.

Had we not had that encounter with Ray, who knows how many other people we would have told about the hospital’s uncaring attitude. And it would have been attributed to “the hospital” even though our negative interactions had been only with a few employees. Does every single one of your employees realize that he or she IS “the hospital” when they are dealing with patients and family members? If they do not handle situations that occur every day with good judgment and sensitivity, the hospital’s Patient Advocate will have more cases land on her desk. It is not beyond the pale to think that an unhappy patient could, in trying to lash back, bring this to the attention of the media. Hospitals are major employers; stories about them are often run in the local newspapers – both good and bad.

A happy ending

The nurse WAS able to get hold of the doctor who faxed the missing blood test results to the hospital so the test could proceed. And the very next day, when I stood up as the instructor in a Leadership Series training course at that very same hospital with the topic of “Dealing Effectively with Angry People,” I had a WONDERFUL example to share with all of them!

Judy Hoffman is a crisis management consultant and trainer on dealing with the media and with angry/hostile people. Her book on the former and CD on the latter topic are available on her web site at or she can be reached at 1-800-848-3907 PIN 2145.
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