Image Crisis

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, January 16, 2008
Did you hear the one about the conservative talk show host who went into the hospital for hemorrhoid surgery?

Unfortunately, there's no punch-line--because it's no joke.

CNN's Glenn Beck almost unwittingly became the new national spokesperson for the healthcare crisis in the U.S. Perhaps the real crisis for the healthcare industry is that Beck's story of the ineffective, uncompassionate, and downright dimwitted healthcare workers he encountered during his hospital stay didn't seem to surprise anyone. It's not just this one hospital that has an image problem. Based on the response to the talk show host's story, which at its peak was the second most-downloaded video on YouTube, I'd say every hospital in the country has an image problem.

Beck was admitted to the hospital (which has not yet been named) after his doctor told him to go to the ER, get some pain medication, and get himself checked in for what was supposed to be a routine outpatient procedure. There were complications that extended his stay, but that's not what went wrong. What went wrong was that he encountered indifferent employees who wouldn't make eye contact with him. What went wrong is that he was scared that he was going to die and no one seemed to care. What went wrong was that his experience was so dark and terrifying that he thought about killing himself.

"Don't talk to me about healthcare," he says on the tape. "Don't talk to me about HMOs. Don't talk to me about anything else. Don't talk to me about how you need a new CAT scan. Don't talk to me about how you need a new facility. Talk to me about how you could have a hospital full of people that don't see people in pain."

Granted, the story is one man's account. And further it's the account of a man who was on some serious pain meds. But his story has resonated with the public because they can relate to it. Beck himself was caught off guard by how quickly the story spread. "I didn't realize why this was a story until recently, and that's because everyone knows that this is true," he said. "Everyone has gone through this."

Your hospital probably uses words like "compassionate" and "caring" in its marketing messages. Your nurses are wonderful, your doctors are brilliant. They don't just save lives, they restore hope, right?

But the public isn't buying it--that's clearly evidenced by the response to Beck's story: A collective shrug of the shoulders, a roll of the eyes, and a rhetorical "what did he expect?" In fact, some are glad that Beck didn't get the star treatment because, they say, the media knows how the average American experiences healthcare on a regular basis.

I know that some of you believe this doesn't apply to you. The only thing that matters is what the local market thinks about your hospital. The only opinions that impact your bottom line are those of your patients and the physicians who refer them. And what happened at that hospital could never happen at your hospital, because all of your nurses and doctors and staffers are compassionate and caring and wonderful and brilliant.

Are you sure?

I'm guessing that the CEO of that hospital never would have thought that one of his or her nurses would tell a patient with a fully distended bladder who is crying from the excruciating pain of hemorrhoids to have a seat. I'm guessing he or she would assume that any triage nurse would help the woman struggling to get her husband into the exam room, rather than tap his fingers impatiently while he waits for them to catch up.

Your good name--your reputation for saving lives and restoring hope--could be ruined tomorrow by one staffer who doesn't get it and a patient or family member with a video camera and a platform on which to post it. One admitting nurse who won't look a patient in the eye, one triage nurse who acts like he has better places to be, one shift nurse who acts like answering questions is an inconvenience is all it takes to undo everything you and/or the members of your staff who do love their jobs and care about their patients have worked for.

You could spend a lot of money to hire a consultant on marketing, branding, and internal communications and you'd probably end up with this same advice from one coincidentally famous patient who underwent hemorrhoid surgery and had a bad experience: "There was a woman who served meals to me every day, for five days," Beck said. "She would joke with me and talk. She made my stay more tolerable because she treated me like a human being ... She looked me in the eye. That's what has to be changed about healthcare. We have to stop looking at medicine as just a science and put the people back into it."

Interested in reading more about healthcare's image problem (and ways to fix it)? Consider the following:

  • Why Is The ED Such a Pain?: In January's HealthLeaders magazine cover story, Molly Rowe looks at the unique challenges of the ED, which, she notes, is "your hospital's window to the community."
  • Living up to your promises: Consultant Kristin Baird lists three things that hospitals can do to deliver on the promises of high-quality, compassionate care in those warm and engaging TV commercials and print ads.
  • From Foe to Friend: Corey Christman reports on how hospitals have responded to five common employee complaints.
  • Stuck at the Gate: Jim Molpus writes that when it comes to quality and customer service, hospitals should not emulate the airline industry.

Gienna Shaw is an editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at
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