Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How the Anechoic Effect Is Institutionalized - A Hospital Policy Against Unsupervised Discussion with the Media

In a single sentence, a short, obscure article in the Worcester (MA) Business Journal on life at a community hospital after a for-profit corporate take-over:
Several Nashoba employees, who didn't want their names used because it's against hospital policy to talk to the media without authorization, said they're happy with the new insurance plan.

We have often discussed the anechoic effect, how cases involving or discussions of the topics we address on Health Care Renewal, the concentration and abuse of power in health care, fail to produce any responses, or echoes.  It was almost an aside, but the sentence above provides evidence of the existence of apparently blanket hospital policies against unsupervised discussion with the media. Here is an example of the institutionalization of the anechoic effect.

This example raises three immediate questions. How prevalent is this? How long has it been going on? What is it meant to hide?


This article is only about a single hospital. However, the context of the article is the take-over of Nashoba Hospital by Steward Health Care. Steward Health Care is a for-profit health care corporation that grew out of the take-over of the formerly not-for-profit Caritas Christi health system by the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management. Steward Health Care now comprises  eight hospitals, and also owns physician practices (apparently including over 2000 doctors based on a quick search using its "doctor finder" function.) Thus it is likely that the policy at Nashoba Hospital that prevents unsupervised discussion with the media also applies at seven other hospitals, and perhaps to the practices of over 2000 doctors. Thus it is very likely that this hospital gag policy is not unique, and may be widespread. However, recursively, the existence of such gag policies will make it hard to determine their own prevalence.

Note that we have posted a few times about confidentiality clauses mainly within physicians' contracts here.


This policy is likely relatively new, since the take-over of Caritas Christi by Cerberus occurred in 2010. My guess is that the rise of such policies may parallel the resurgence of for-profit hospitals and hospital systems, and perhaps the new involvement of private equity firms in such organizations.

In my humble experience, gag policies and confidentiality clauses at least within non-profit teaching hospitals were virtually unheard of from the time I began medical school (1974) to when I left my last full-time academic medical position (2005).

Note that we recently found out (because of investigative journalism about presidential candidate Mitt Romney's previous involvement with private equity firm Bain Capital) that such firms are generally rebranded leveraged buy-out firms. They have become known for their secretiveness. Therefore, maybe it should not be surprising that they have imposed such secretiveness on hospitals and health care professionals.


The big question is why should hospital employees not be allowed to talk to the media without management supervision? I can only speculate.

In this case, perhaps such secretiveness is just the habit of the private equity executives who now run the hospital system. Even if this is the reason, they ought to reconsider. Hospitals and health care professionals due have a solemn obligation to keep confidential their patients' medical information. However, otherwise health care organizations and health care professionals ought to be as transparent as possible.

Maintaining such a level of secrecy could lead to some suspicions, for example, that the generic managers of the organization distrust the professionals they hire who actually provide patient care; worse, that the managers fear discussion that might question their actions or abilities; worse, that the managers want to silence whistle-blowers; or even worse, that the managers have something unethical or illegal to hide. That is all speculation, of course.

On the other hand, we have discussed again and again how the anechoic effect has stifled discussion of what is wrong with health care, and hence prevented meaningful health care reform. Gagging hospital employees is an obvious extension and institutionalization of the anechoic effect. It should not be done, because we need honest discussion of what is really wrong with health care so we can come up with some real solutions.

1 comment:

Judy B said...

I suspect that most of the "usual suspects" do not want any change as they would make less money! Ergo, they either ignore or stifle anyone who brings up the problems with the current situation.