A Merger, a Merlis and a Melee: 4 Lessons Your Business Can Learn from Abington Hospital’s Mistakes

The fate and future of Abington Memorial Hospital suddenly is in doubt. After decades of building a reputation as the community hospital of choice in the Philadelphia suburbs, a decision made behind closed doors has torn that community apart.

Logo for Stop the Abington Hospital MergerDoctors aren’t happy. Patients aren’t happy. Donors aren’t happy.

What should the hospital do? And what lessons can businesses learn from Abington’s mistakes?

The Situation

Abington Hospital CEO Laurence Merlis agreed to a merger with Catholic hospital Holy Redeemer to form a new regional health system. The problem? He didn’t tell anyone, including his doctors.

One of the stipulations of the merger is that Abington must stop performing abortions. You’ll hear many people mention that, but don’t get caught up in that polarizing topic. The real issue is that a secular hospital now finds itself wondering what Catholic-imposed rules doctors and patients will have to follow. This includes abortion, fertility services, stem cell procedures, end-of-life decisions and more.

Lesson 1: Think of not just the benefits but the consequences your decision will create.  How will your customers, your employees and your community feel and react?


Transparency & Authenticity: Missing in Action

It’s funny how fast trust can fall away. Just last year, Merlis was highlighted in an article titled, “How Laurence Merlis Unifies Employees around His Vision for Abington Health.” The article stated:

Two of the most critical things a leader can do when formulating and promoting a vision is to listen and measure. It’s something that Merlis has made a top priority at Abington. He wants his leadership team to get input on the future direction of the organization from all involved stakeholders — the board of directors, physicians, medical staff, office staff and support staff. Then, once the vision and strategy are formed, he manages by what he can measure and communicates that data back to employees to facilitate an ongoing dialogue.

Sounds good, right? Seems like Merlis forgot his own rules. He said he wanted “to keep the entire work force engaged in the process and also empower employees to hold management accountable for their leadership decisions” adding “We share that in an effort to stay as transparent as possible.”

Oops! Where did that transparency go?

Doctors and the community are now trying to hold those leaders—Merlis—accountable for their decision, yet the hospital is very slow to respond.

Lesson 2: In Merlis’ own words: “You need to be sure that you are measuring yourself by what you said you would do.” Be authentic. Don’t claim to be transparent if you plan not to be.

Facebook Frenzy & a Wave of Bad Press

In this social age, delay in response is dooming. Leaders at Abington Hospital clearly dropped the ball. Did they, in arrogance, assume that people would acquiesce to their merger decision with no problems?

That would be idiotic. In a community with a good number of Jewish and non-Catholic families, many of whom have contributed to the hospital, it’s a major slap in the face to suddenly turn their hospital into a Catholic one.

I know, Merlis insists Abington will stay secular. But his actions say something different. And even his own doctors no longer trust him. One doctor, Dr. Philip Rosenfeld, who has been with the hospital for over 40 years hammered this point home, saying after all that’s transpired “I have no confidence in any statement of the Abington Hospital administration.”

Doctors stand in solidarity against the merger and so far:

Lesson 3: Respect your audience. Act quickly to at least acknowledge that the doctors and public have a valid response. Prove you are listening. Understand the problem you’ve created.

Stopping the Wave

So far, Abington Hospital’s response has been minimal and ineffective.

Meg McGoldrich, AMH VP for Administration, reached out to the Facebook page owner, Rita Poley, to see if an “accommodation” could be reached. Her proposal? To establish an off-site facility for abortions. Completely missing the point.

The danger of a subject like abortion is that people hear that word and choose sides, not paying attention to the other items at stake. This isn’t just about abortion.

The issue here is that a CEO who claimed he was committed to transparency and valued his employees’ opinions made a decision that greatly affects them without any consideration as to their opinion or how it would affect them. All this despite a year earlier claiming:

Our philosophy here is the staff are experts in how to get things done…We look to them for advice and recommendations on how to make things better when it comes to making ourselves a place for patients to receive care.

He also disregarded the community his hospital serves. Right now, people who want Catholic services go to Holy Redeemer Hospital. Others have a choice that is now, in a sense, being taken away. Now, women and doctors don’t trust (and don’t want) this new Catholic influence on their care.

Lesson 4: Know when to fold ‘em. Stop the merger for now. Listen to your audience and if you choose to go forward with the merger, incorporate the needs and concerns of your constituency.

Next Steps

After Merlis stops the merger, which is the only (sane) thing to do at this point, he will have to work very hard to rebuild trust. Because he’s waited so long to address the issue with the doctors, employees and community, I’m afraid the only step for Merlis to take is to resign—with no golden parachute to ease his fall.

Then Public Relations and Marketing will have to get into high gear working to undo the damage. My suggestion is to commit to transparency this time and make every next step obvious, public and in the best interest of the patients and the community.


UPDATE: July 18. Abington and Holy Redeemer Hospitals announced they’ve called off the merger (short statement in the Philadelphia Inquirer).



  1. Betsy Townsend · July 16, 2012

    Thanks for putting this into words; for describing the situation so clearly and verbalizing the thoughts of many in our community.

    • ctmarcom · July 17, 2012

      Thanks, Betsy. Thanks for taking time to comment. I hope Mr. Merlis and the hospital execs soon realize how important community support is for the future of their hospital. I think they meet with the docs today, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

  2. James Partner · August 15, 2012

    Excellent perspective. Until recently, management would have used market research among key constituents to “feel out” their sentiment about a proposed merger between the two organizations. Hope they include key stakeholders next time…

    • ctmarcom · August 15, 2012

      I sure hope so too, James. Thanks for taking time to comment.

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