November 29, 2018

Preparing for a Crisis: Medical Implants Need a Dose of Strong Medicine

Wendy (White) Naughton

Wendy (White) Naughton
EMEA Healthcare Practice Lead/Hill+Knowlton Strategies

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The healthcare industry may be renowned for ‘prevention rather than cure’ – but its response to the recent medical implant exposé suggests it’s been too focused on prescribing this advice rather than taking a dose of its own medicine.

The news that patients may have suffered pain or death as a result of faulty medical devices has rocked the industry. The Implant Files investigation, which involves many high-profile news organizations from around the world, coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), has taken aim at a range of companies behind devices such as artificial joints, pacemakers, contraceptives, and breast implants.

But the response from the industry to this crisis and attack on reputation has been muted. While regulatory bodies such as the FDA are scrambling to respond, it seems that device manufacturers have self-administered anesthetic and are closing the cubicle curtain. When it comes to crisis management, such an approach inevitably leads to reputational damage, loss of consumer confidence, and increased skepticism.

Adopting a policy of silence in times of crisis also does a disservice to organizations that are unfairly tainted by an allegedly industry-wide scandal. In this particular case, those are device manufacturers who have fulfilled their obligations in respect of trials, safety, efficacy etc – and in some instances have themselves called for greater transparency and regulation in the sector.


Prevention rather than cure


Best practice crisis management advocates preparation ahead of any potential crisis occurring. Organizations should understand the risk landscape they operate within and prepare in advance for anything that may hit. For the medical devices sector – and indeed healthcare more broadly – this includes preparing robust messaging about product safety, and the company’s wider commitment to patients. It’s vital that when accusations are made about a product, that an organization is able to quickly address those concerns, using accurate data and evidence. Organizations also should practice and prepare to do this in a way that is empathetic and personable.

The preparation should also involve planning who the company needs to be speaking to. The media is an obvious audience – but it may not always be the first port of call. Customers, GPs, HCPs and other industry partners may also want to receive communication from an organization that is in the spotlight or potentially tainted by industry scandal. That also entails preparing for what these different groups may want to hear. In a crisis, they’re typically looking for reassurance, a demonstration that a company has their best interests at heart and is showing the necessary concern, or, if applicable, that something is being done about the situation. The needs of these audiences will significantly influence the style and content of crisis communications, so this should be included in preparatory work. Road testing the plan, including crisis simulations – either desktop or digital – can help teams to prepare for when a crisis hits. These simulations help teams navigate different areas of crisis management and can help to identify and address gaps in planning.

The big issue here is that the industry needs to think about people. Doctors whose trustworthiness may be compromised. People who have had implants that are indeed well tested and safe and yet now are anxious over their own health. People who may need to be examined to assure they are indeed living with the right solutions and their families and loved ones that are equally worried and concerned.

Finally, if organizations are caught off guard, then swift reputation recovery plans should be drawn up and activated. These require rapid internal mobilization so that facts can be established and communications prepared – but are crucial to maintaining and improving the vital signs of an organization when a crisis hits.  

The current scandal should serve as a warning for other sectors within the healthcare industry – and prompt them to consider putting plans in place so that they’re ready to respond if the spotlight turns on them.

Comments? You can contact me directly via my AdvisoryCloud profile.

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