It finally happened. After years of helping hospitals communicate with patients about data breaches, I recently found myself on the receiving end of one of those letters. The language was factual, yet cold. I was advised to review my credit report and bank accounts carefully and given some oh-so-helpful tips to help keep my information safe (wait, wasn't that their job?).
Frustrating? Yes. But I'm hardly alone. With more than 90 percent of hospitals reporting at least one data breach in the past two years, more patients are learning their personal information isn't as safe as they thought. While data breaches at big box stores and restaurants may grab more headlines, healthcare breaches cut deeper. Fair or not, doctors and hospitals are held to a higher standard, which makes communication all the more important.
Here are a few simple - yet often overlooked - tips providers can use to minimize fallout when communicating a breach:
Act Fast - While providers have 60-days to notify patients and media of a breach, waiting until the last minute only invites questions. Make sure a communications representative has a seat at the table from the beginning - and begin sharing information as soon as you have all of the facts.
Transparency Is Key - Be upfront. Provide patients with as much information as you are able so they can make informed decisions. While it may feel counterintuitive to share the details of a negative event, transparency breeds trust and often reduces the amount of follow-up required. The same approach applies to media notification when necessary.
Be Human - Patient notices often feel sterile and devoid of emotion - not exactly what most people expect when communicating with their healthcare provider. While the breach notification rule requires the inclusion of specific information, the letter shouldn't read like a legal document. Use plain English to let patients know that you value their trust and take the matter seriously.
Be Prepared - Designate a single point of contact to handle calls from concerned patients and make sure those calls are returned promptly. Frontline employees, physicians and leaders should be provided with general talking points and trained on where to refer patients with specific questions. Also consider developing a media statement to use if questions arise - even when external notice is not required.
While there's no way to completely soften the blow of bad news, good communication can go a long way in preserving hard-won trust.
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