May 27, 2008
Copyright © 2008 PRSA. All rights reserved.
By Brad Korn and Jim Mandler
The following article appears in the June 2008 issue of PR Tactics.
When you mention the word “hospital,” most people probably think first of doctors, nurses and patients. After all, the principal mission of all hospitals is to provide the highest quality care to those in need. What few realize is how much property hospitals own and manage, the large transportation infrastructures they operate or the amount of waste they produce. But to those who live nearby, the kind of neighbor a hospital is — and the quality of life it supports — may be more important than the quality of care it provides.
The organization that we represent serves as the parent company for six major hospitals in the New York metropolitan area as well as a large network of ambulatory care facilities and private physician and clinical practices. Some of our hospitals are large, academic, tertiary care medical centers. Others are smaller, community-based hospitals. Yet each has its own personality and its own unique relationship with its community.
Maintaining a quality infrastructure is probably the greatest challenge to a hospital’s relationship with its local community. What a health care provider views as essential to maintaining a highly functional facility may be quite different from what members of the community think is best for the neighborhood. Here’s a good example: Several years ago, one of our hospitals built a pedestrian bridge above a neighborhood street to connect two clinical buildings. The hospital viewed this as a critical component to patient safety. (Before the bridge was built, patients had to go outside to get from one building to the other.) However, some vocal members of a local park association took umbrage with the structure, criticizing it as a community eyesore and a detriment to the nearby park. Bad feelings toward the hospital continued for many years.
Then, two years ago, an opportunity arose to repair some of the damage. The New York City Parks and Recreation Department was diligently working on an expensive extermination project in the park. However, as funding ran out, the problem remained unresolved. The hospital paid for a year of supplemental extermination services that eradicated the problem. The result? The hospital now has an open-ended invitation to attend monthly meetings of the park association and other community groups, and to play an active role in keeping the park vibrant.
Another of our hospitals is located in Brooklyn in a predominantly residential community, home to many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Because of a real-estate boom, a local synagogue that had been operating out of a retail storefront a few blocks from the hospital was unable to afford a lease renewal. Leaders needed to relocate the synagogue within the community if it was to continue to serve its present congregation because of restrictions against driving on the Sabbath and high holidays. Like many hospitals, ours owned several underutilized nearby properties. The hospital signed a long-term lease with the synagogue — and construction is currently under way to convert one of these properties into a working facility.
The last of the experiences we wish to share concerns one of our major teaching medical centers, located in a tiny brownstone community in Brooklyn. Real estate issues have always been important to the residents of this community. A local — and influential — neighborhood association that works hard to maintain the fabric and integrity of the neighborhood has had an up-and-down relationship with the hospital over the past decade. Support from this group enabled the hospital to build a parking garage on the site of a former park, and the hospital compensated with four community pocket parks. But changes in leadership at the hospital over the years eroded the good will that had been built. When this hospital became part of our parent organization, we put considerable effort into rebuilding relationships. This often meant late nights at community meetings and sitting down with elected officials and neighborhood activists to hear about their issues.
The relationship was strengthened when the hospital actively sought the involvement of the community in its plans to divest some local properties. Plans were discussed and the community association provided valuable input. This renewed spirit of community partnership proved so successful that the neighborhood association awarded the hospital its “Good Neighbor Award.” The hospital leadership and the association continue to meet regularly.
What you can do
Other ways our hospitals maintain good relationships with our neighbors include altering schedules for sanitation pickups, product deliveries and equipment tests to lessen noise disruptions during morning hours. We have changed locations of ambulette parking and patient drop-off zones, and we have changed construction projects to accommodate class schedules at neighboring schools.
Another way that we provide service to our neighbors is by offering free screenings, health lectures and flu shots at numerous locations in the communities we serve. These are important programs that further our mission (not to mention our public requirements) as community-based, tax-exempt health care institutions. We carefully tailor these services. You have to be sure that the services you are providing through community outreach sync with community needs, or your hospital might be perceived as insensitive and out of touch.
Communication is also key. It is critically important to keep your community informed about what is going on at your hospital facility. Don’t take the attitude, “If you build it, they will come.” You have to market yourself, and your community can be one of your most vocal champions. Make sure they are up to speed on all of your new services and clinical strengths. Also, consider stepping outside of your traditional patient catchment areas to share information about your facility and to provide free health education services. Never assume that your competitor hospital is doing the same things that you are. These actions reinforce your commitment to being a good neighbor.
Your relationship with elected officials can also be essential to a strong community outreach program. Keep an open dialogue with them, and extend whatever services you can to help them meet the needs of their constituents. At some point, you will need their support. If you are invited, be sure to have hospital representatives serve on local neighborhood associations and community boards. They will know what concerns your neighborhood and give you a leg up on addressing these concerns.
None of the activities we’ve mentioned here necessarily make hospitals better health care providers. However, being a good neighbor gives your hospital one less distraction in its pursuit of providing the best health care possible.
Brad Korn serves as Continuum Health Partners’ corporate director for community affairs. Jim Mandler serves as its assistant vice president for public affairs. Continuum is the parent company for Beth Israel Medical Center, St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals, Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn and The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary.