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Boston bombings reveal evolution of hospital crisis communication

May 6th, 2013

by Nancy Cawley Jean

Like the rest of the world, I was in utter amazement as the story of the Boston bombings played out, and it's something I can't stop thinking about. I can't imagine what the victims and their families have been living through since it happened and all the recovery time still ahead of them.

In the aftermath, I can sit back and think more clearly from a professional point of view. The first thing that comes to mind is what those media folks were experiencing at the Boston hospitals. I totally understand. They were inundated with media trucks, media calls, reporters wanting answers to a myriad of questions, assignment desks calling for constant updates on patients, requests for interviews, and the list goes on and on.

Then of course there's the need to keep the public informed, and that's when each hospital's social media efforts came into play.

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I think they did an absolutely phenomenal job in as difficult a situation as any we experience in this line of work. I recently came across a great article that speaks to the communications efforts by these three hospitals, and it warrants sharing, as do the kudos that these hospitals deserve.

It was this same article that brought me back 10 years to the horrible nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., at The Station. I was 10 years younger, and I have to admit, a lot greener about crisis communications. I had only been working for the hospital for a year and a half when the fire happened. And while I am very lucky to be among the few in Rhode Island who was not personally impacted by it or knew someone who was, it is an experience I will never forget.

Of course those times were very different. Back then we relied on phones, faxes and emails to share information. What a difference social media would have made that night, and for the many weeks afterward, when we had patients at our major trauma center in Rhode Island. We received 63 patients that night. And many of them were critically injured and required care for long periods of time.

We were flooded with national and international media outlets, all following one of the worst fires in history, and one of the biggest stories to ever come out of Rhode Island. There were so many things about that night that could have been done differently if social media existed.

Families would have known immediately if their loved ones were safe or among the missing. As a hospital, we could have posted information immediately as it happened, with updated numbers of patients and conditions. We could have posted information for families on where to go when arriving at the hospital and resources for them to help in the aftermath, and even connect families who were experiencing the same things.

The media could have turned to our social feeds for regular updates. The speed and immediacy of our communications response would have been drastically increased with today’s technology.

None of us ever want to experience a crisis, especially of the magnitude of the Boston bombings and The Station fire. But personally, I'm glad we have social media now to help us better communicate when we do experience them. I don't think we can appreciate enough the increased power, reach and flexibility it provides us with, especially in a crisis situation.

Has your hospital used social media during a crisis, or do you plan to in the future? How?

Nancy Cawley Jean is a senior media relations officer for the Lifespan health system in Rhode Island, managing social media for five hospitals and a women's medicine practice.

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