Ottawa

Hospital delivers 'flippant communication' amid outage: PR expert 

After operating rooms were put on hold and appointments cancelled, some were left wondering what happened at The Ottawa Hospital on Friday. 

Little official communication came from hospital during critical network failure 

Several software systems were down at all three campuses of The Ottawa Hospital after a hardware failure early Friday morning. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

After operating rooms were put on hold and appointments cancelled, some were left wondering what happened at The Ottawa Hospital (TOH) on Friday. 

According to information provided to hospital staff and obtained by CBC News, a "hardware issue" was discovered at about 5 a.m. Friday, resulting in a network failure that affected multiple software systems, and forced the hospital into a critical infrastructure failure code grey.

The situation went unexplained publicly, from official TOH sources, for nearly 12 hours.

An internal memo obtained by CBC News said the outage affected software systems that handle communications and patient records. 

Hospital staff resorted to using paper records and, later in the day, calling patients with results, once some systems were back online. 

Several patients reported having their medical appointments cancelled due to the system failure, while others who spoke to CBC News outside the General campus said their experience ran smoothly despite the technology issues. 

But when it came to official communication about the critical network failure that affected all three campuses throughout the day: near silence. 

Just before 5 p.m. hospital staff sent the following update about the outage to CBC News:

"All TOH systems are now up and running and today's network issue has been resolved. The Ottawa Hospital is fully operational. Thank you and have a lovely long weekend!"

Renu Bakshi is a crisis manager and a media trainer based in Vancouver. (Submitted by Renu Bakshi)

In the eyes of Renu Bakshi, a crisis manager and media trainer based in Vancouver, that's not how to handle tough situations. 

"If there's one thing we learned through the pandemic, it's that communication is critical," she said. "Timely and frequent communication in a crisis is critical."

"The reason being, keeping people in the dark increases fear and anxiety."

Bakshi said the hospital should have provided more frequent updates, providing people with the best information as the situation evolves. 

She said it's especially important given the role of The Ottawa Hospital.

"A question for me when I was reading their statements – the few public statements they did make – I was trying to understand how they were prioritizing life-saving procedures," she said, "because that's the biggest concern anybody, any member of the community, would have."

Outages like this 'very rare'

Rachel Muir, president of The Ottawa Hospital's bargaining unit for the Ontario Nurses' Association, called a full outage like this "very rare."

While glitches may crop up from time to time, she doesn't recall another outage of this scale. 

"That's how good they are at doing this," she said. "They're very good at catching it and fixing it before it becomes a big issue."

"We all get caught out once in a while ... You can't avoid that." 

Still, Bakshi hopes the hospital uses Friday as a learning opportunity.

Staff should revisit whether they're communicating across all the channels available to them, she said, and consider how do they want crises to be communicated in order to reach the widest possible audience.

"Frankly, I think they owe the community an apology for their flippant communication," she said. "That last bit at the end. 'Hey, have a lovely evening,' really put me off."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joe Tunney reports for CBC News in Ottawa. He can be reached at joe.tunney@cbc.ca

With files from Alexander Behne

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