Health care communications specialists balance patient protection and community concern
In an era of instant mass communication, health care providers have a plethora of tools at their disposal to get the word out about new procedures, services, equipment and facilities. Yet, establishing relationships remains at the core of communicating with the public and the press.
Federal patient privacy regulations established by HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), have set new parameters for what information hospital public relations/marketing personnel can release.
HIPAA requires that every patient treated at a health care facility be asked if he or she wants to “opt in” or “opt out” of the hospital’s directory. That directory lists the patient’s name, room number and whether the patient wants visitors or anyone notified of the hospitalization. If the patient is unable to communicate or is a minor, the family is consulted.
If a patient “opts out” of the directory, mail or flowers addressed to that patient will be returned to the sender, says Mylinda Cane, regional director of marketing for the Community Health Care System, which includes the Community Hospital of Munster, St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago and St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart.
“If the press or someone else calls about that patient, we will say we have no information,” Cane says.
The HIPAA patient confidentiality laws “are very strict,” says Joe Dejanovic, director of marketing and communications at St. Anthony Medical Center in Crown Point. “If hospitals fail to follow the government HIPPA laws, they can be fined and even face jail.”
Before HIPAA, reporters regularly inquired about the condition of patients injured in vehicle accidents, industrial accidents and during the commission of crimes. Hospital spokespersons readily gave out that information using four condition categories: critical but stable, serious, fair and good.
Now HIPAA provides another layer of patient protection in these situations, Cane says. “Patients can remain in the directory, but say they don’t want the media to know their condition.” This applies even in accident cases or those injuries that resulted from crimes, she says. Again, the family can speak for the patient if necessary.
“Only in the most general of car accident cases are we permitted to give one word condition reports,” Dejanovic explains. “There would be no explanation of injuries such as blunt trauma, broken left arm, etc. as we were able to do in years past.”
HIPAA does add another layer of tasks because the patient and/or family must be contacted, and it means that the media doesn’t always get the information it seeks, says Stacey Kellogg, director of marketing for LaPorte Regional Health System, which includes LaPorte Hospital, Starke Memorial Hospital in Knox and multiple physician practices.
However, she says, the law has created new opportunities for communication with patients and the community at large.
“We look at HIPAA as a protection for our patients,” Kellogg says. “If I were a patient, I would like my privacy protected.”
In addition, the media is very savvy about HIPAA, says Maria Ramos, manager of public relations and marketing for St. Margaret Mercy Healthcare Centers in Hammond and Dyer.
“The media knows about needing the patient’s full name before they even call,” Ramos says. “They need specific information before we can respond.”
In the case of mass casualties, hospital spokespersons can provide the number of patients being treated in the emergency room, Ramos says. “We can give an overview, but no specific information. For example, when the hospital in Dyer flooded two years ago, we were able to say we evacuated more than 60 patients.”
However, with the outbreak of H1N1 Type A flu, most hospital personnel say they are referring all media questions about confirmed cases or those being treated for flu-like symptoms to county or state health departments.
“We will refer reporters to the Indiana State Board of Health. They collect that data,” Cane says.
Kellogg said all inquiries about flu are directed to the LaPorte County Health Department.
“As a marketing pandemic situation, the best thing is to refer all questions to the county or state health agency,” she says. “Then there’s one central voice.”
Although the PR staff at St. Anthony also refers reports to local and state agencies for overall statistics, Dejanovic says, “If we had confirmed cases it would not be a problem to release that information as long as we don’t release any identifiable patient information due to HIPAA constraints. According to the CDC, most of the flu cases presently being seen by family physicians and hospital emergency rooms are H1N1.”
The federal privacy laws don’t hinder hospital PR or marketing personnel from contributing to media stories, Ramos says.
“We field a number of questions about new trends or situations from reporters, and we find experts, either physicians or department heads, within our facility who can talk to that issue,” Ramos says.
Breaking that technical information into layman’s terms is a skill communication specialists cultivate, she says.
Press releases, the time-honored method of communicating with the media, continue to be used by all health care providers, including individual medical, dental and ancillary practices. But, many of those press releases arrive via e-mail.
“We also pitch story ideas to the press, by calling reporters or editors,” she says.
“Our overall marketing efforts are geared toward educating the public not only regarding our services, technology and programs, but to help them become more well-informed when it comes to staying healthy,” says St. Anthony’s Dejanovic.
With the advent of the Internet, health care providers can reach consumers through websites, designed to inform potential patients and to showcase new services, equipment, procedures or facilities.
“We can get information out quickly on our site,” Kellogg says.
Hospitals throughout Northwest Indiana use printed materials such as magazines, newsletters, brochures and post cards to get their messages out to the public.
For example, Ramos says St. Margaret Mercy’s quarterly newsletter, “Pursuit of Healthy Living,” is mailed to 125,000 households within the two campuses’ primary and secondary service areas.
Hosting health fairs and screenings both at the hospitals and in the community helps raise awareness of what hospitals offer. So do talks by specific health personnel to church and community groups, Ramos says.
Paid advertising is another tool used to keep the public informed about hospital and physician services. Thirty years ago, hospital administrators vetoed any form of advertising. However, now, advertising is a major communication device in the public relations/marketing arsenal, says Kellogg.
“We do a variety of paid advertisements in print, radio, TV and on the web,” she says. “This allows us to control our message.”