I've been thinking about values lately: sacrifice, dedication, ethics and courage. This started when I reread Tom Brokaw's popular book, The Greatest Generation, which chronicles the stories of the American troops storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and the incredible acts of courage they made during that horrendous battle.
There are many lessons to be learned from the sacrifices those men made to guarantee freedom for their fellow citizens and for generations to come. So many lost their lives or suffered horrific wounds. Those who survived rarely spoke about what they had accomplished or the carnage they had witnessed. They just went about their business, building the postwar economy and raising the next generation.
Then I began to think about some of the great leaders I have known while I have been publisher of this magazine. Walter McNerney of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association comes to mind. So do Bernie Lachner of Evanston Hospital Corp.; Bob Cathcart of Pennsylvania Hospital; and Elliott Roberts of Cook County Hospital and many other posts.
So do legends such as Sister Irene Kraus, Stan Nelson, Henry Ford, Don Cordes of Iowa Methodist Medical Center, Alex McMahon of the American Hospital Association, healthcare consultant Don Wegmiller, Allen Hicks of VHA and others. These were people of great vision, who were focused on their mission, mentored hundreds of other leaders and galvanized their staffs to adapt to times of incredible change in healthcare delivery. These were people you wanted to meet and hoped you had the chance to learn from.
I call this healthcare's greatest generation because of the wonders these people created when leadership was necessary for many of our greatest institutions to survive. These were pioneers, leaders who practiced what they preached. Their legacy is an industry and major institutions that continue to enjoy great success today caring for patients.
It is in the memory of these people's accomplishments and values that I bring up a most delicate subject, but one that must be addressed because I care deeply about the future of this industry. It's about the conflicts of interest that have become so prevalent and public of late.
Integrity is something very precious. It may be the one thing that defines us as professionals. Without it we cannot lead and certainly can't inspire others.
On one level, conflicts of interest are complicated. Few people enter into such arrangements with the idea of doing wrong. A friend will ask an executive to bring expertise and insight to a vendor board. These situations, however, involve interpersonal and financial relationships that at least call into question whether a healthcare leader will make decisions that are unaffected by the potential conflict.
Looked at another way, however, it's really not that complicated. Here's the simple solution: No chief executive officer or other senior officer of a healthcare organization should be on the board of a supplier, consulting firm or any other company that does business with that organization. It may or may not be a conflict of interest, but the perception of such conflict is surely understandable on the part of those who witness this kind of behavior.
Too many executives have found themselves involved in such conflicts of interest, and it's causing increasing concern both in Washington and among critics of the healthcare industry. It is the wrong thing to do. Yet from time to time we get press releases from vendors and others announcing that a CEO or other senior hospital industry executive has just joined its board.
It would be similar if I were to join the board of the company that does our printing or the company that supplies us with marketing materials or computers or whatever. It smacks of cronyism. It may be completely above board in the sense that I wouldn't receive any stipend or travel allowance or other goodies, but there are others who would see my behavior as less than ethical. Whether or not I received remuneration, they would assume I did. In simple terms, it would compromise my ability to lead and that would not be proper and fair to my employer.
I write this column with some trepidation only because I know that many of my friends serve on vendor boards and other related companies that do business with their institutions. They are bright, energetic leaders who have done incredible things with their institutions and they have paid back in many ways by serving on community and association boards. They work long hours and endure considerable stress and do so in large part because they care deeply about others. That's why they came into healthcare-to help others-and that's why it becomes doubly difficult to chastise so many whom I care about.
It would hurt me even more if I were to see a person's career ruined by serving on the board of a company that does business with his or her hospital, no matter how pure the intent. I know of one executive whom I hold in great respect whose career was tarnished by serving on such a board.
We call healthcare an industry, but in truth it's more than that. It's a calling and a public service, and those who serve in this domain must adhere to a higher standard. Perception of conflicts of interest can be as harmful as actual double-dealing, and we must all be cognizant of the possible consequences. This industry was built on honor, integrity, character and devotion. That's the least we should expect of each other and ourselves.
It is our legacy,
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Lauer is the author of two books, Reach for the Stars and Soar with the Eagles, and is an experienced guest lecturer available for public speaking engagements. For more information, go to chucklauer.com.