A focus on respect and care after the fatal Florida shootings

The doctors communicating victims’ statuses following the deadly spree at a Broward County school fiercely protected patient privacy. Others focused on offering those affected counseling.

A mass shooting has many victims—some with physical injuries, others with psychological wounds—and health care communicators and practitioners are doing their utmost to help.

Wednesday’s shooting spree at a high school in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 people and has left many in that community reeling with grief.

The New York Times reported:

A heavily armed young man barged into his former high school about an hour northwest of Miami on Wednesday, opening fire on terrified students and teachers and leaving a death toll of 17 that could rise even higher, the authorities said.

… By the end of the rampage, Mr. Cruz had killed 12 people inside the school and three outside it, including someone standing on a street corner, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said. Two more victims died of their injuries in local hospitals. The aftermath at the school was an eerie shrine, with chairs upended, a computer screen shattered with bullet holes and floors stained with blood.

On Thursday, the authorities charged Mr. Cruz with 17 counts of premeditated murder.

CBS News reported:

It was the nation’s deadliest school shooting since a gunman attacked an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, more than five years ago. The overall death toll differs by how such shootings are defined, but Everytown For Gun Safety has tallied 290 school shootings in America since 2013, and this attack makes 18 so far this year.

Authorities and communicators who must respond during crises of these magnitude have the tough job of relaying pertinent information but being mindful and sensitive to the unfolding crisis. That task becomes harder when sensitive and graphic details surface on social media, making it into news stories and headlines.

For health care professionals responding to these tragedies, the difficulty is even greater. They must balance information and reporters’ questions with patients’ privacy. The doctors that spoke for Broward Health Services—the group of hospitals which received the victims and the suspect after the shooting—exemplified this balance.

Doctors’ highlighted ‘respect’ during press conference

On Wednesday night, Dr. Evan Boyar, chair and medical director for the department of emergency medicine for Broward Health North, and Dr. Igor Nichiporenko, trauma surgeon and medical director of trauma services, answered journalists’ questions.

During the press conference, both doctors remained firm on their refusal to give specific details about the patients in their care, but continued to bring their responses back to the organization’s mission: respecting patients.

Boyar opened the conference by expressing sympathy for those affected by the shooting:

First and foremost, we want to extend our condolences and sympathy for all those people, family members involved in the tragedy today.

When asked about the status of the victims at the hospital, Boyar responded with a short medial summary:

Of the eight patients that we had, not including the suspect, two mortalities, three in critical condition, three stable.

Boyar kept details to a minimum while discussing the 17 victims and the suspect that the hospitals within Broward Health Systems received:

When pressed for more details, Boyar respectfully declined.

Out of respect for the family members, out of respect for our patients, we’re not going to disclose this information.

He continued to decline answering additional questions about victim information, coming back to his main message of respecting patients:

We prefer not to comment on our patients in respect for our patients.

When asked how he and other doctors can keep their Hippocratic Oath “knowing what [the suspect] is potentially accused of,” Boyar answered:

Every patient that comes in gets treated as a patient, and we take care of them medically, and that’s what we do.

Here’s Boyar’s response when asked to describe patients’ reactions and behavior upon being treated:

I’d prefer not to comment on a specific patient’s demeanor, but, you know, as a human being, you can imagine that they would be in shock, or, you know, be emotional about the whole situation.

On Thursday, Boyar maintained the same language when discussing patients at Broward Health North—commenting more specifically on patients’ injuries, but keeping details to a minimum:

The doctor’s language was echoed in Broward Health’s statement about the patients, which it posted on its newsroom:

Broward Health Medical Center received seven patients directly related to the incident at Stoneman Douglas. Of the seven patients, five patients are in non-life threatening condition and two patients are in life-threatening condition. Broward Health North received nine patients related to the incident at Stoneman Douglas, of which includes eight victims and one suspect. Of the nine patients, four patients are in non-life threatening condition, three patients are in life-threatening condition and two patients have expired. Broward Health Coral Springs received one patient in non-life threatening condition related to the incident at Stoneman Douglas.

Kena Lewis, director of public affairs and media relations for Orlando Health, knows how difficult it can be for health care communicators to respond in a crisis such as Wednesday’s mass shooting. She ran crisis communications for Orlando Health after 50 people were killed and 53 wounded in a shooting at Pulse nightclub.

Lewis offers communicators the following advice:

First, we have to remember and the press needs to understand, that patient care always takes precedence. From a communications perspective, our initial responsibility is to get accurate facts (which can be a challenge during mass casualty incidents) and provide what we can to the press. We must be HIPAA compliant. We can never provide information to the press that identifies a patient without that patient’s consent. During a mass casualty incident, we can provide unidentifiable information such as number of patients received, discharged or deceased, or the number of surgeries performed or scheduled.

The sheer volume of press can be overwhelming, making it impossible to respond to everyone. But getting the information out is important. We used all communication channels that were available – both traditional media and digital media – to distribute important information to the press, the public and our own employees.

Counseling and support for victims

While health care professionals were focused on protecting patients’ rights to privacy, other authorities responding to the shooting shared messages meant to help the victims and their families cope with the crisis.

Broward County’s official Twitter profile tweeted information on where to get grief counseling:

Curtailing scammers

To stop the spread of fake GoFundMe accounts in relation to the shooting, the Broward Sheriff’s Office also tweeted a link to the official GoFundMe account to donate to victims and their families.

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