Tough Decisions: Strategies for Communicating Hospital Service Line Changes

Hospitals are increasingly finding it necessary to make tough decisions to close or scale back services. In an environment of changing care delivery models, these decisions are the result of many factors including regulatory upheaval, shifting market dynamics, changes in community demographics, recruitment difficulties, volume fluctuations or unsustainable financial challenges.

How hospitals communicate change — whether they’re closing an underutilized and hard-to-staff obstetrics unit or discontinuing inpatient care to focus on other services — can have far-reaching impacts.

Each situation is unique to an organization and its community. The following strategies can help minimize misinformation and rumor while promoting valuable, compassionate and honest conversations.

Have an operations plan. A solid and comprehensive operations plan will help drive the cadence and flow of communications. If you know your organization needs to notify your state’s Health Planning Department or Certificate of Need board by a certain date and those notices are public record, that’s a good indication of when you should start telling everyone else in your organization. You want key internal stakeholders to hear the news from you before local reporters can file a story.

Start planning early. Bring your communications teams into the fold as soon as reasonably possible during data analysis and certainly as final operational decisions are made. This could be months or even a year before you begin to implement your plan. Allowing enough time to fully develop the tools necessary to effectively communicate the change means you will have a much more robust and valuable plan.

Lead with the facts. All communications should be premised on the facts as you know them. This allows you to maintain credibility and trust among your various stakeholder groups. Countless factors influence service lines changes and many of them are uncomfortable to discuss, like financial challenges. But getting called out for half-truths or selective omissions is far more painful and damaging to your reputation.

Reinforce value. It may seem counterintuitive to tout your organization’s recent improvements, accolades or expansions while announcing a disruptive change but, in fact, there is no better time. If you recently received a four-star rating from CMS, include that in your communications. If you’ve seen an increased demand for ED services, and have data to back it up, now is the time to let your community know you’re planning to put more resources into meeting that need.

Consider timing. Engage key stakeholder groups early and often if possible. Consider sharing the news with your internal audiences first (or at least simultaneously with any hospital board action or regulatory notification that could become public record.) Employees will appreciate hearing the information directly before reading it in the news or on social media. Make it a point to reach out to your community leaders and elected officials directly as well. These individuals will likely receive questions or comments from constituents, and you’ll want them to understand the facts and, if possible, serve as supporters of your decision.

Explore the use of multiple communications channels. There is no silver bullet communication that will reach all audiences, so it’s important to think broadly about how to communicate your change in an effective – and even persuasive – manner. Whenever possible, key stakeholders and strategic partners should hear about your changes through direct means and even 1:1 communication. All audiences need multiple touch points, however, so consider how social media, email, community newsletters, local media outreach, presentations to community groups, etc., factor into your outreach plan. And because service line closures often illicit an emotional response (think: OB closure or infusion discontinuation), consider in advance how to address questions and concerns, including negative comments on social media.

Each organization is different, and each community will experience change in its own unique way. Contact Lovell Communications at or 615-297-7766 to discuss your organization’s needs and specific strategies to support service line changes.