As New York City hospitals fill up with breathless patients, healthcare executives are flouting the orders of their employees to control the story amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Mount Sinai Health System and NYU Langone Health are among the private hospitals that have warned workers about their concerns about the nightmarish scenes taking place in the city’s emergency rooms, even as public hospitals benefited intense and unflattering media coverage.
And Northwell Health recently emailed healthcare professionals advising that all media interviews must first be approved by the public relations department, a hospital employee told POLITICO. It does not threaten termination in the email.
“We all have a responsibility, as caregivers, to use social media properly, to educate the public and not to worry them with false information and messages that do not positively reflect the integrity of our hospitals and, most importantly, your patients and colleagues, ”Kathy Lewis, executive vice president for communications and marketing at NYU Langone Health, wrote to staff last week.
She warned medical workers not only not to speak to reporters, but to post their thoughts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.
“Anyone who does not adhere to this policy, or who speaks or disseminates information to the media without the express permission of the Office of Communications and Marketing, will be subject to disciplinary action, including termination,” he said. she declared.
Mount Sinai has distributed its own set of guidelines discouraging press talk and dictating social media policies as more and more medical professionals have stepped forward to report problems in their hospitals. This advice coincided with images shared on social media of employees carrying trash bags on their regular equipment – an alarming image of the interior of one of the best health systems in New York City that shaped public opinion on the shortage of personal protective equipment.
The email did not contain any reference to the pandemic or to ongoing disciplinary measures that could be taken, although some staff stated that the threat was present.
“I’m very afraid of being fired for [sharing the guidance with a reporter], which just makes me think that they are more afraid of their image than actually taking care of patients, “said an employee, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. “I am a great asset, but the fact that I speak on behalf of my patients, my colleagues and I am firing me is not acceptable. It is an injustice that they overwhelm us with fear. “
Another staff member from Mount Sinai, who also requested anonymity, said, “Another hospital will not hire you if it learns that you have spoken. “
City Council member Carlina Rivera, who chairs the committee that oversees hospitals, has reprimanded gag orders that fail to shed light on the “serious” shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE.
“I absolutely think that workers should be able to speak out publicly because I think because of the tweets and Instagram stories and what we saw that was covered by the media, this is what ultimately helped Elmhurst Hospital, “she said in an interview. Wednesday.
“You can’t be the president and CEO of a large hospital system and know what’s going on in every corner of your facility,” she added. “I think New Yorkers can handle the truth. “
Elmhurst Hospital, one of New York’s two health facilities and hospitals in Queens, received additional equipment and staff after employees released refrigerated trucks to contain the crowded bodies and hallways full of patients.
The city sent 169 clinicians to the hospital and reassigned 45 staff members to help with patient care, while providing the municipal hospital with an additional 40 ventilators a day after the New York Times published a heartbreaking account outlining the hospital problems. The city will also begin building a temporary hospital at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens, to relieve Elmhurst from bed space, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this week.
Dr. Mitchell Katz, who oversees the city’s network of 11 public hospitals, said Elmhurst was simply the first victim of a patient influx in a large, densely populated area with a single hospital. Other public hospitals are likely to face similar problems with outdated emergency services, he said in an interview this week.
And because the city does not impose such gag orders on its nurses, many of whom are union members, the disturbing conditions inside its hospitals are more likely to end up in media coverage, he said. . In private medical centers, he said, “you talk to the media, you run the risk of being fired. We don’t believe it. “
NYU Langone defended its policy, saying that it is a long-standing practice and intended to “never silence the staff”, but rather to protect them “against the abuse of certain members of the press”, said spokeswoman Lisa Greiner.
These political choices were supported by the Greater New York Hospital Association, the most powerful professional association in the state’s health care system.
“It is a decision that every hospital must make, and we are not questioning it,” said spokesman Brian Conway.
Meanwhile, health workers at a coronavirus task force on Mount Sinai said they demanded “zero tolerance for employer retaliation or threats against those who speak out”, in a statement. letter distributed to staff members and obtained by POLITICO.
“Last week, two nurses died in New York,” said the letter. “We have friends and colleagues who are admitted and in the intensive care units. Some hospitals have lost 30-40% of their staff due to infection and quarantine. The assumption, which quickly becomes a reality, is that we will all be exposed. “
Union leaders and the American Medical Association have spoken out against the practice of muzzling health workers.
“In those cases where hospital conditions or policies conflict with the best interests of patients, some employed physicians have reported hospital policies to prevent public disclosure and discussion of the situation,” said Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association in a statement Wednesday. “No employer should restrict the freedom of doctors to defend the best interests of their patients. “
Gag orders are not limited to these systems.
Eleven health professionals from various New York health systems told POLITICO that they had signed confidentiality agreements, had contracts stipulating that they should not speak to the press without the consent of their employer or feared losing their jobs if they spoke publicly.
NewYork-Presbyterian, whose own press store is notoriously guarded, has refused to make the executives available and to provide data on its coronavirus pandemic preparedness plans. Instead, he described his own struggles to ensure sufficient equipment for workers and said his operating losses in 2020 could reach $ 700 million, according to a voluntary disclosure note.
The system also wrote that it had modeled the expected losses based on the pandemic that crossed the city over a 16-week period.
Efforts to prevent workers from sharing their stories with the public have left a sour note for the New York State Nurses Association.
“The soldiers cannot speak. We are not that. We are on the front line, ”said Patricia Kane, executive director of NYSNA. “We are the troops, but we have an obligation to speak and to plead.”