The New York Post Sunday cover story was bold even by the standards of the city's loudest tabloid. Not only did the story paint a Brooklyn hospital as a death trap, but it did so using a single anonymous source and had the unusual byline "anonymous."
By 5 p.m. that day, representatives of NYC Health & Hospitals began hitting back, attempting to discredit the Post's story with a strongly worded statement sent to reporters.
The article alleged gross negligence put pediatric patients in danger at Coney Island Hospital. An anonymous former physician described a culture of incompetence that stemmed from carelessness on the part of nurses and attending physicians. The author was a resident, a doctor who is getting additional medical training under the supervision of an attending physician.
There was no indication that the Post had corroborated the dangerous conditions described. As a result, readers—as well as patients at Coney Island Hospital—would have trouble confirming the details.
The city's public health system said it could not confirm whether the incidents described occurred or the anonymous source had ever worked at the hospital because the person was not named.
"The anonymous, personal memoir published in a tabloid [yesterday] is full of holes and absurd claims," a spokeswoman for Health & Hospitals said in the statement. "The health and safety of our patients is our top priority."
In response to inquiries about how the story was reported, a spokeswoman for the Post said: "We stand by our reporting."
The story comes at an inopportune time for Health & Hospitals.The system is trying to attract more patients to its hospitals and clinics, particularly ones who are insured. To that end, it's in the early stages of a politically sensitive transformation plan that was unveiled in late April. The de Blasio administration is pushing a five-year, $1.8 billion plan to transform the municipal health care system and stabilize its precarious finances. Before the new strategy was announced, the system projected a $600 million operating loss for this fiscal year, which ends June 30.
The municipal health system said it didn't plan to take legal action in response to the story but is "angry at such unfair, vicious attacks against our staff. It's ridiculous to suggest our nurses don't care if a child lives or dies."
The use of a single anonymous source isn't acceptable in most health care reporting, said Trudy Lieberman, a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a media critic who specializes in health care coverage.
"Single-source stories, whether they are health policy stories or about new medical technologies or treatments, are problematic," Lieberman said. "The public really deserves to hear more voices in the story."
She said the story did raise issues that could be worth investigating.
"The story itself raises some questions about safety at this hospital that need to be investigated. If the newspaper wants to do that, it has to do a proper investigation looking at documents and corroborating sources," Lieberman said.
In an article that accompanied the two-page account of the former Coney Island doctor, the Post noted hospital safety citations issued by the state Department of Health and a patient-safety score of 37 out of 100 from Consumer Reports. In response, the system held up its C grade from the Leapfrog Group as evidence its performance is near the middle of city hospitals. But that score was as high as an A last year. The differing scores show how difficult it is for patients looking to use numerous lists and ratings on hospital safety, with different sources offering conflicting information.
The Post's aggressive coverage of city hospitals has recently included several well-reported stories that other outlets largely ignored. Using documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Law, the paper described an operating room fire at NYU Langone Medical Center, and earlier this year, the newspaper reported on internal turmoil regarding Health & Hospitals' shift to a new electronic health records system. In that story, the system's former chief medical information officer compared the transition to the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
A recent leadership shakeup is evidence the hospital system is committed to quality care, the H+H spokeswoman said. Coney Island's acting executive director, Robert Hughes, and medical director, Dr. John Maese, were transferred to other jobs within the system, and chief nursing officer Terry Mancher retired, Modern Healthcare reported in March.
The hospital said recent leadership changes "are not related to any individual incident." The Post had reported in March that those executive changes were tied to the emergency room death of 47-year-old Grisel Soto.
The 11-hospital system faces a potential budget gap of $1.8 billion by fiscal 2020. It plans to close that gap by generating $1.1 billion in new revenue through government subsidies and higher enrollment in its MetroPlus health plan as well as $700 million in cost savings. Much of the expense cuts will come from restructuring its workforce, though City Hall has assured unions there will be no layoffs.
"City hospital system declares war on New York Post" originally appeared in Crain's New York Business.