The big, fat mouth I open in this column is my own. When I write stuff that’s so bad my dog would not even dare to roll in it, that’s all mine. When brilliant ideas light up the page, I get all the credit. The $40 bucks I get paid for each column — mine, mine, all mine.
The ideas I express here are also mine. They don’t belong to physicians, hospitals, my mom, or the Rice Crispies with whom I like to chat about health care politics. They don’t belong to Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, the organization for which I have worked since 2005. They don’t belong to Blue Hill Memorial Hospital, which I ran for almost two years, or to Eastern Maine Medical Center, for which I have worked in one role or another since starting there as a physician in training in 1988.
In fact, when it comes to my writing for the Bangor Daily News, the company I work for and have a great arrangement with, we don’t have a darn thing to do with each other. In the 18 years I have been writing this column, not one of my bosses has ever suggested what I should or should not write, or ever even told me they were happy or unhappy with what I have written.
Not even once.
Seven years ago, a board member of my company complained to the previous CEO about something I had written in my column. The CEO replied, “This company and I have absolutely nothing to do with what Dr. Steele writes in that column. If you are unhappy with what he wrote, go talk to him or write a letter to the editor.”
That gives me independence to write about topics of my choosing, and my employer has no responsibility for what I write. The fact I work for a health care company is information included at the end of my column not because that company wants credit for my work, but because, in the appropriate interest of transparency, the newspaper wants readers to know for whom I work. That way, readers can judge for themselves where my biases come from.
It works the other way, too; just as my company does not pursue its interests through my column, I don’t pursue my personal or column agendas at the office. I work for a company that employs more than 8,000 people and is a big tent of ideas. As long as you don’t pursue your own personal agenda at work, disparate thinkers are welcome. That’s a subject of great pride for me in my employer and my colleagues.
It takes some care to walk this tightrope between public health care columnist and high-profile health system executive, however. I keep my footing using balance provided by several principles.
First and foremost, I try to write about what I think is of importance and/or interest to readers. That keeps my column grounded in what I think are the readers’ interests.
Second, if the only reason I know or care about an issue is because I work for a health care company, I generally don’t write about it. On the other hand, if it’s an issue that I would be very interested in regardless of whether I was employed by a health care company, then it is fair game.
Unless… Sometimes it’s a topic I would have an opinion about even if I was not a health system executive, but my job puts me too close to the issue, or a lot of what I know about it comes from information derived from work. I stay away from those topics, because it would be too difficult for anyone reading such a column to imagine I was objective. I cannot cover every topic in health care, nor should I try. That’s why there are other writers.
Feel free to tell me when you think my column is not adequately free of my countless conflicted interests (patient, physician, health system executive, employer, shill for this and that, etc). I’ll listen, but no guarantees I will change what I write. As I said, it’s my column.
Erik Steele, a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.