Walking into a brand new decade, there’s plenty of opportunity for savvy health care PR teams to lead the crisis communications charge when it comes to mitigating potential disasters. While most large (think Fortune 500) health care companies do have crisis communications plans in place, you can never truly prepare for every possible issue. And 2019 was certainly a year of “issues” for some health care companies. That’s why it’s critical to have the right health care PR agency or partner before these serious concerns arise.

Below is a look back on some of the media mishaps in our industry from 2019. Were the responses from these companies helpful or harmful to these public catastrophes? We’ll let you be the judge.

  1. A last ditch attempt by Purdue Pharma
    Last year saw several major lawsuits against Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of OxyContin. Perhaps more infamous are the sales and marketing claims that were FDA-vetted during the approval process: Purdue stated the drug’s formulation as a long-acting painkiller was less appealing to individuals who abused the prescription or obtained it through illicit channels. The company and their false safety assertions were cited as largely responsible for the opioid crisis in the US, a public health emergency that, according to the US Department of Health & Human Services, resulted in over 130 deaths every day in 2016 and 2017. More than two decades after the introduction of OxyContin, the pharmaceutical manufacturer settled with the state of Oklahoma for $270 million. And a federal case in Ohio (comprised of thousands of lawsuits from other states, cities, Native American tribes and even hospitals) sought over $10 billion from the pharma company to recover the money spent in attempts to combat opioid addiction and overdoses. In response, Purdue filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September of 2019 in an attempt to skirt the massive payments demanded by the multidistrict litigation.
  1. Johnson & Johnson & opioids & baby powder
    At the tail end of 2019, Washington state accused Johnson & Johnson of negligence and deceptive marketing practices in another lawsuit prompted by a nationwide move to combat the widespread effects of opioid abuse, misuse and addiction. The angle? As a distributor of Purdue’s OxyContin, the company failed to provide accurate information about the risks of the drug, of which they were a major supplier. That suit was preceded by an August 2019 ruling that ordered the company to hand over nearly $575 million to the state of Oklahoma in an opioid-related payment as well. Johnson & Johnson’s health care PR issues don’t end there. Outside of the drug epidemic, the company recently responded to tens of thousands of cases involving cancer-causing talc in their baby powder, an anti-psychotic drug called Risperdal that caused young men on the medication to grow breasts, and falsely-marketed pelvic mesh products that caused infections, pain and bleeding. What many journalists, consumers and PR pros can agree on is that the long-standing “family-friendly” company has lost its way—and lost public trust.
  1. Health care collections agency breach allows hackers to collect millions of patients’ personal information
    After a hacker gained access to systems belonging to the American Medical Collection Agency (AMCA), personal information belonging to nearly 25 million people was compromised. Quest Diagnostics was the first to break the news, and their affected patients made up 12 million of the entire population impacted by the breach. A day later, another announcement from Laboratory Corp. of America, more commonly known as LabCorp, stated that close to 8 million patients’ personal information was exposed in the same breach. Amidst the disaster, there was one small consolation: both Quest and LabCorp patients’ laboratory results were not provided to AMCA and therefore weren’t compromised in the security incident. But the seemingly minute positive detail was quickly overshadowed. Like Purdue, AMCA swiftly filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after the health care PR catastrophe, citing high expenses related to the data breach.
  1. CMS and corrective action for hospital quality issues
    North Carolina Children’s Hospital, part of UNC Health Care, suspended complex pediatric heart surgeries after secret audio recordings were released to the New York Times. In these conversations, hospital employees, including surgeons and department heads, can be heard discussing concerns about poor surgical results—even stating they would hesitate to send their own children there for surgery. Based on data compiled by CMS, showcasing detailed safety, quality and mortality information, it was evident that UNC’s numbers were far worse than the national average. Many hospitals tout their high ratings from groups like CMS, Leapfrog and US News & World Report as great health care PR opportunities. A vast majority even voluntarily submit mortality and other outcomes data to the Society of Thoracic Surgeons’ database for heart-related surgeries. Naturally, the spotlight on poor results (and the leaked recordings) didn’t fare well for UNC. Around the time the audio was released, several other prominent health systems like Baylor St. Luke’s, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and MD Anderson all came under fire for similar, systematic safety and quality issues. After various responses in the forms of denying outcomes, citing poor team dynamics, replacing leadership and halting surgery programs resulted in terminations of CMS funding, these hospitals have all ultimately implemented plans of correction to improve patient safety.
  1. Mylan plays the blame game
    With 2019 marking the 1-year shortage of the well-known EpiPen, the onus volleyed back and forth between the manufacturer, Meridian and the company who markets the drug, Mylan. Both companies are subsidiaries of Pfizer. The lack of availability of the auto-injector actually prompted the FDA to approve an announcement stating consumers could continue to use certain Pfizer-branded and generic EpiPens four months past their expiration date. While there are other comparable epinephrine injectors on the market today, some are still cost prohibitive or have similar availability issues. EpiPen is also the most commonly-used—this means that school nurses, first responders and other health care professionals are trained on EpiPen administration, but may not be familiar with other auto-injection devices. The supply chain issues didn’t reflect well on Mylan or Pfizer, especially after several years of other EpiPen drama. In 2017, there were recalls on the drug following violations of current good manufacturing practices. And bad health care PR swirled around Mylan after a 400% increase in the injection cost from 2010 to 2016, making the common and life-saving treatment inaccessible to many people who relied upon it in emergency situations.
  1. A small community makes waves announcing their big problem
    As a final reminder of what can happen when health care PR goes terribly wrong, may we remind you that South Dakota is on meth—and spent half a million dollars on a campaign that had the rest of the country wide-eyed. The state may believe that “all press is good press,” but their approach to raising awareness of a dangerous drug epidemic brought mixed reviews. Many residents of The Mount Rushmore State were less than pleased to see their neighbors, from high school football players to ranchers, as the faces of various, provocative public health ads. The double meaning wasn’t lost on the public, but the aggressiveness behind the creative drew criticism from some, given the seriousness of South Dakota’s meth problem.

Working in the health care industry, marketing, communications and public relations teams know that both proactive brand awareness and responses to media-facing crisis events can make or break your company. And working with a public relations firm with health care experience can significantly improve media results with events that may bring negative publicity. Feel free to reach out to us to learn more about how Activate Health can support your health care PR needs—and help you prepare before a crisis hits the news wire.