Monday, December 06, 2010

VCU President Rao's Previous Code of Silence

We recently posted about the code of silence imposed by Virginia Commonwealth University President Stephen Rao on his staff.  It turns out now that this was not his first exercise in imposing a code of silence. Before he was at Virginia Commonwealth University, Rao was President of Central Michigan University.  Central Michigan Life just reported:
While serving as CMU president, Rao required all office employees to sign a similar confidentiality agreement stating all names, places, dates or incidents that happened in his office were not to be shared with anyone or discussed outside the office.

'I understand that the information and all files, letters, projects, telephone calls and anything relating to the work performed in the President’s Office and in my capacity as an employee is highly confidential,' stated the agreement, which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. 'I understand that it may not be discussed with anyone outside this office who does not have a need to know, which includes any other CMU employee, as well as my family members, friends, etc.'

The CMU confidentiality agreement extended past any employee’s tenure at CMU, stating that the contract must not be broken past the term of employment. If an employee were to break the confidentiality agreement past employment, possible consequences included personal liability and potential lawsuits.

Note that just as was the case in Virginia, this agreement placed employees at risk not only of losing their jobs, but of being sued were they to violate the agreement.

By the way, while Central Michigan University does not include a medical school and academic medical center, as does VCU, it does have, and therefore the previous agreement affected the operations of multiple health related programs (see here) including allied health, health administration, physical therapy, and psychology.

As we wrote previously, such a code of silence subverts the university's central mission, and directly opposes the transparency I believe is necessary for good governance in health care.  The discovery of this previous confidentiality agreement at CMU suggests that such agreements may not be rare in health care. 

We have long discussed the anechoic effect in health care, how certain topics and issues are just not to be discussed, especially those that might embarrass or oppose the personal interests of health care leaders.  We have postulated that the effect operates through fear of offending supervisors, colleagues, or those who provide one's pay.  It may be, however, that the anechoic effect has been codified through confidentiality clauses.  As noted above, such codification can mean whistle-blowers may risk lawsuits as well as job loss and ostracism.

If there are other codes of silence operative in health care, I hope that sunlight soon shines upon them. 

That sunlight may cause such codes to shrivel is suggested by President Rao's rescinding of the code at VCU soon after it was made public, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
With the board of visitors meeting yesterday to evaluate his performance, Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao rescinded the confidentiality agreements he required employees working in his office to sign.

Rao sent employees a letter Wednesday that said the confidentiality agreements were intended "to protect the privacy of my family, particularly my children, in my home."

'The confidentiality agreements have been the subject of recent scrutiny and criticism and, unfortunately, have been misinterpreted in terms of what I sought to be accomplished by these agreements,' he wrote. 'I sincerely regret any undue burden or ill will that these agreements may have caused. Therefore, I have decided to withdraw all such confidentiality agreements.'
Such codes ought to be perceived as unethical, and perhaps should be made illegal.  Meanwhile, though, the anechoic effect continues.

No comments: