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Perfecting the Bedside Manner: Healthcare Public Relations

Posted At: April 4, 2013 9:09 A.M.
by Katie Sanders

Hospital PRA nurse or doctor is expected to have a comforting bedside manner. Along with knowing the diagnosis and treatment, healthcare professionals deal with the emotional and abstract challenges that present themselves in daily activities. Healthcare PR and communication practitioners must also learn to display a consistent “bedside manner” when faced with challenges of their own.

Public relations is present in all areas of hospital or healthcare organizations. The hospital reaches diverse publics; thus many target audiences require attention.

Children’s of Alabama Hospital Head of Communications Garland Stansell acknowledges the wide range of PR that is required to run a hospital. A blanket PR strategy or campaign cannot be used because communication with a patient is different from communication with doctors or donors.

“You must meet with each internal client and consider the desired outcome, and then plan a strategy targeted to reach the outcome goals and objectives,” Stansell said.

Stansell explained that patient communication is centered around health promotion, safety and advocacy. Communication switches to more of a business-to-business strategy when targeting physical-related marketing. Children’s markets its hospital, doctors and medical staff to hospitals in Alabama and the rest of the Southeast in order to draw patients to Birmingham.

Another business-to-business communication strategy is used with donors.

“Communication to donors is primarily to get them to give and give again,” Stansell said.
“This objective is centered on branding and our service, which includes telling the positive outcomes and stories of patients and the amazing medicine and treatments that help ill and injured children.”

Building the bedside manner

Public relations is all about building relationships, and the same is true in health care. The industry’s organizations and professionals may be unaware that they use PR in their daily activities. Dr. Eyun-Jung Ki, an associate professor in the University of Alabama Department of Advertising and Public Relations, said building quality relationships affects attitude and behavior.

“It is important to build these relationships because if the patient doesn’t trust the healthcare professional, he might not be willing to share personal stories or information needed to provide proper care,” Ki said.

Ki proposed a relationship model tested in banking, business and education industries in the Encyclopedia of Healthcare Communication. In her chapter, “Application of Organization-Public Relationship Theory on Health Communication,” Ki discussed the six strategies used to cultivate relationship: access, positivity, openness, sharing tasks, networking and assurances.

These relationship tactics can be used in a wide variety of areas within the industry, particularly in doctor-patient interaction, to build trust.

“A primary goal of health communication is improving and advancing the health conditions of individuals and populations,” Ki wrote in the Encyclop.

Her model is just one example of how communication is necessary to healthcare organization and professionals.

Employee communication

Intra-organization and employee communication should never be overlooked. In the healthcare industry, it is vital that all staff be in tune with one another and the organization.

Children’s of Alabama uses several methods to communicate within the organization, such as its monthly newsletter “Our Way,” email blasts and its intranet Red Wagon. All of these methods encourage communication between staff members to make operations more efficient. Computer screen savers are also used as a method of communication. These messages are controlled by the IT department.

Employees use these methods for work-related communication. They are allowed to have social media accounts for personal use, but there is a set policy concerning social media and networking about hospital affairs.

“Children’s only has one official account for each social media platform,” Stansell said. “Staff is not restricted from talking about work; however, staff cannot talk about specific patients or patient cases on social media or share other specific work details.”

The hospital’s social media and networking manual clearly states that all official hospital communication, like individual department pages, must be approved by either the corporate communications Web staff, the chief communications officer or the vice president of corporate communications and physical relations, depending on the nature of the content or project.

Employees are also discouraged from using obscene, disparaging or deflamatory remarks on their personal pages. If they list the hospital as their employer on Facebook, for example, they must include the company disclaimer in their profile.

Stay calm and stick to the plan

Communication to donors, patients and physicans seems similar to other non-healthcare-related organizations, but what happens when operations do not go according to plan?

At Children’s, employees are not coached on how to communicate on a normal, daily basis. Training is saved for abnormal situations.

Stansell said the crisis communication plan is updated every 18 months to two years. All hospital staff and employees participate in organization-wide drills about three times a year.

“In addition to the plan we also have various scenarios ‘in the drawer’ and frequently have table-top drills,” Stansell said.

These tools are given to hospital employees so that they are prepared in emergency situations. Training allows employees to complete their necessary tasks and jobs because they have knowledge of the proper way to communicate with patients and their families, media or other employees. The most important things for employees to remember are their composure and their training, Stansell said.

The changing future

As the media and communication worlds change, so must the way healthcare organizations use and handle public relations. Stansell said the shift of media work from the newspapers and television industries to in-house PR professions has resulted in changes like launching an online newsroom for Children’s of Alabama. Social media will continue to be used for reaching the public, but with different techniques and strategies for how it is used.

However, as in every area of the healthcare industry, the patient still tops the list of importance.

“There will be emphasis on communicating directly with patients and patient families,” Stansell said. “However, we will still need to communicate with physicians, referring physicians, staff and other publics.”


  1. Post comment

    Good read. It was nice to get a refresher on how important PR in this particular field is. For social media, it is important that professionals keep a clean profile in all of their personal accounts, especially PR practitioners and pros, because they are representing an organization or company and most importantly, themselves. It comes down to this: businesses need to hire people with morals and standards that are aligned with theirs to help avoid revisiting this problem. We know upon coming into this whole thing that we will be viewed constantly by the public so it shouldn’t come as a shock that wearing the “face” of your company at your best, not just in the working environment, but in your personal life too, just comes with the job.

    I couldn’t agree more in your last point about patients remaining at the top of the list. What would be interesting to see, particularly with hospitals, is stronger efforts toward the need for changing our obscured health care system. Unfortunately, most doctors who wish to keep their care for patients first are paid based on how many visits and procedures they complete daily. If more hospitals were more serious about this issue, of course their PR folks would support them, so it would capture much-needed attention; maybe even Congress’, if we’re lucky.

  2. Post comment

    I always knew that the hospitals, and the healthcare industry at large, had PR but I had never really sat down to think about just what would go into such an operation. Donors, patients, families, doctors, nurses – all have to be thought about. With any PR job multiple publics have to be juggled at once but with a hospital the subject matter is even more sensitive than normal.

    I think it’s great that hospitals are adapting to social media so well and I’m really interested to see what further adaptations and uses they find for this evolving platform.


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