Brands in the News

UNC Health Care’s Brand Crisis

31 May 2019  

UNC Health Care is a facing a devastating brand crisis today and doing a terrible job of managing the situation. This is a fascinating, tragic story about healthcare, brands and trust.

The New York Times Report

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a long, detailed article describing issues with cardiac pediatric surgery at UNC Children’s Hospital. The piece highlighted a series of surgeries that had gone poorly. More devastating, the report suggested the hospital knew about the problems and worked very hard to hide the data.

The article was based on secret recordings of a series of meetings at UNC, where cardiologists talked openly about the problems. Dr. Tim Hoffman, Chief of Pediatric Cardiology, is recorded saying, “It’s a nightmare right now. It mean, it really is. We are in crisis and everyone is aware of that.”

This morning, the NYT’s podcast The Daily featured clips from the actual recordings, as well as a heart-breaking story about Skylar Jones, a 2-year-old girl who died after a routine cardiac surgery at UNC.

The Branding Problem

The NYT piece is a massive problem for UNC Children’s Hospital. The article is both impactful and credible, a compelling mix of data and personal stories. It is the first thing that shows up today on Google for a search on UNC Health Care.

Most important, the story raises questions about safety and trust. In the world of healthcare, especially pediatric healthcare, there are few things as important as these two words. After reading the article, it is hard to imagine that anyone would send their child to UNC for a cardiac surgery.

But the problem is bigger than pediatric cardiac surgery. If the culture described in the Times article exists at UNC, then who would go to UNC for any surgery or procedure?

If the brand of UNC Health Care is linked to unethical, unsafe behavior, it will have an impact on every part of the organization: patients, staff, physicians, partners and the broader community.

UNC’s Response

UNC is demonstrating how not to respond to a brand crisis.

Yesterday, UNC issued a statement: “We are proud of our pediatric congenital heart surgery program, and our current team is receiving top results that would place us among the best in the nation.”

This is ridiculous. One can only hope it is false. If it is true, after the devastating story of Skylar Jones and the other children, then things are even worse than it seemed. How could anyone be proud in the face of this story?

Talking about results is absurd, too, since UNC is not releasing all the data. Today Ellen Gabler, the New York Times reporter noted, “They are still unwilling to release this really important data…. The Times is still suing to get this.”

What’s Next?

This will be a fascinating story to watch. Will UNC figure out how to respond in a credible, transparent, human way? Or will the organization take the easy road and make general statements about the quality of the team and its long, proud history?

For the moment, things are not going well and UNC is left facing the accusations of Thomas Jones, Skylar’s father, who said in today’s podcast, “You can’t continue to do this to people and families.”

More to come.


3 Responses

  1. davetuchler says:

    Horrifying story. Immediately brought to mind Boeing (737 MAX) and Vale (failed dams) — loss of human lives, made more tragic by corporate indifference, incompetence, or denial. Double whammy; so hard to restore trust.

  2. Sat Ganesha S. Khalsa says:

    I postulate this happens at ALL organizations, an organization does not arrive at a tragedy of this proportion without signals, many signals. Yes, there is a good/best/honest way to handle this type of situation and very important. Unfortunately many (most?) organization cultures, their profit-loss incentives, the management-leadership practices and their followership bebaviors will continue to breed these type of situations, just not such a personal heart tug and sad way. I feel for those affected and pray that we all learn-change so it does not happen again.

  3. emita Hill says:

    A tragic story and yes, clumsily handled.

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