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Hospitals take different approaches to communication, transparency

Mercy doctor says open, honest dialogue plays role in public health
Mercy Hospital and its parent company Centura Health have communicated little with the Durango public during the pandemic. Mercy has declined to specify bed counts or the number of unvaccinated staff, while offering a muddled picture of what is going on within hospital walls. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)
Jan 23, 2022
Hospitals take different approaches to communication, transparency
Jan 23, 2022
Mercy Hospital, others seek outside help amid COVID-19 surge

Throughout the pandemic, many hospitals have placed an emphasis on transparency and informing the public in an effort to help their communities.

“I have no reason not to tell the facts about how our hospital is (doing),” said Dr. Rhonda Webb, CEO of Pagosa Springs Medical Center.

Webb said the hope has always been that by communicating with the community, Pagosa Springs Medical Center can help people understand the seriousness of the pandemic and take precautions.

“There is such an avalanche of misinformation that’s out there,” Webb said. “If all people hear again, and again, and again is misinformation or no information, then that's what they're going to believe or they’re going to come to their own conclusions.”

Mercy Hospital and its parent company Centura Health has its own approach.

Though much of the hospital’s COVID-19 data is sent to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Mercy has withheld much of that information when communicating with the public.

When The Durango Herald asked in November amid another surge, Mercy declined to specify how many beds it had available and declined to say how many of the 1,100 Centura employees at Mercy remained unvaccinated.

Centura Health announced on its website last week that Mercy had received nine registered nurses and two respiratory therapists from Colorado’s Staffing Shortage Fusion Center, which coordinates short-term staffing requests from hospitals, after requesting assistance for the hospital’s ICU staff.

According to an email from a spokeswoman for CDPHE, the Staffing Shortage Fusion Center sent 25 contracted medical staff members to Mercy.

Neither Centura nor Mercy returned phone calls Friday seeking comment for this story.

In October, a spokeswoman for Mercy said the hospital was “busy” but not at capacity. The spokeswoman said the ICU was not full and the hospital had designated 18 of its 82 beds for intensive care.

According to Gus Hallin, the medical director of Mercy Hospital’s ICU, the hospital was designed for a maximum of 10 ICU beds and his department has been overwhelmed with critical care patients since July 2021.

Between 16 and 20 patients have been on life support at Mercy’s ICU at any one time, Hallin said.

In October, a group of 17 retired Mercy physicians and about a dozen community members submitted an open letter to the Herald criticizing the hospital for high turnover rates among its staff.

After publication of the letter, Mercy’s CEO Patrick Sharp acknowledged that high turnover rates and hiring issues were a problem, but argued that incoming providers were capable and the hospital was maintaining its standards of care.

Each hospital or hospital system has discretion for how it handles its communication and sharing of information with the public.

“It is very specific to each organization,” said Cara Welch, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Hospital Association. “The Colorado Hospital Association always encourages transparency as much as possible and we provide our hospitals across the state (with) graphics they can use and messages that we recommend, but it's always up to an individual hospital.”

During the pandemic, the direct communication between some hospitals and their communities has been lost, in part, because much of the information is grouped regionally or as a state, Welch said.

“We’ve seen through COVID that a lot of this (information), especially when it comes to data reporting, does get rolled up into regional or statewide reporting,” Welch said.

“I think there are instances where we do communicate more at a regional or even statewide level than each individual hospital, and that's been true in the COVID response,” she said.

While their data has been incorporated with statewide figures, Webb and Pagosa Springs Medical Center have tried to keep the community informed about the availability of beds.

“We're at 11 beds, but people need to understand that right now we only have five beds open because we don't have enough nursing staff,” Webb said Friday.

The Pagosa Springs community has responded positively to the hospital’s efforts.

“Our community has been very supportive of us during all this,” Webb said. “They’ve fed us, they’ve encouraged us. For the most part, we get a lot of positive feedback over the way we've dealt with this.”

According to Hallin, local hospitals communicating clearly with the Durango community is essential as Colorado continues to fight the coronavirus.

“We need to keep the channel to the community as open as possible so they know what we're trying to do,” he said.

“This is the most serious widespread public health issue we've had in a century,” he said. “It's important for people to understand the facts on the ground and sometimes the information on social media is extremely misleading. We've got to understand how to utilize the resources we have wisely.”

To Hallin, communicating with the public is as much about protecting the nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists in the ICU as it is about keeping people informed.

Mercy Hospital staff members already face challenges treating patients, he said, but they have also had to deal with skepticism and frustration from patients and their families.

Only by engaging with the community will people remember all the work that medical professionals do for them, Hallin said.

“The nurses and doctors have always been about serving the community at Mercy,” he said. “That's all we've ever been about.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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