Jim Kenyon: Dartmouth Health media policy amounts to doctors’ gag orders

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 7/31/2022 12:56:58 AM
Modified: 7/31/2022 12:56:50 AM

It says a lot about the work environment at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center when a registered nurse who runs an innocuous Instagram page is so afraid of retaliation from management that they feel a need to hide their identity.

The nurse who started the page called dhmc_memes about a year ago spoke recently with Valley News staff writer Nora Doyle-Burr on the condition that their name not be mentioned.

In sometimes clever and often humorous ways, the account combines comic images and words to create Instagram posts the powers-that-be at Dartmouth Health, the jumbo health system of which DHMC is the flagship, probably don’t find funny.

The page has more than 2,700 followers, hundreds of whom have joined since the July 23 story in the Valley News. The nurse pokes fun at internal memos and takes DHMC to task for serving cafeteria fare that “might give you food poisoning.” Dartmouth Health CEO Joanne Conroy — who apparently travels around DHMC’s sprawling Lebanon campus on a Segway-style scooter — has been lampooned as well.

I don’t blame the part-time satirist behind the meme page for wanting to remain anonymous.

Dartmouth Health has a policy that forbids its 13,000 employees from speaking publicly about the workplace unless they get permission from the organization’s communications and marketing office.

The policy also states that someone from the media relations staff “will attend all interviews.” If it’s a phone interview, DH media relations pro will be listening in.

I’m surprised Conroy and Co., doesn’t require rank-and-file employees to sign a loyalty oath.

DH commanders are obsessed with protecting their new “brand,” launched in April that has led to gobs of money thrown into marketing to attract new patients in southern New Hampshire, where DH has spent heavily on bricks and mortar. Meanwhile, Upper Valley hospitals and clinics often lack the staff to provide timely care to the patients they already have.

Fortunately there are nearby examples of similarly sized medical centers where workers don’t have to toe the company line to collect a paycheck.

The University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington is one of those places.

Last summer, when there was growing concern among UVM nurses that staff shortages were affecting quality of care, they took to social media to let the outside world know what was happening inside the hospital. They didn’t hesitate to use their names and have their photographs appear on a nurses’ website.

“Our patients deserve efficient care where safety and quality are not compromised because one person must do the work of two,” RN Stephanie Lusk wrote.

Why do nurses at UVM Medical Center feel comfortable about speaking out publicly?

Perhaps because in 2002, registered nurses at the state’s largest hospital voted to form a union. The Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, which is part of the AFL-CIO, currently represents about 2,000 UVM nurses and 600 technicians.

Nurses pay 1% of their annual salary in union dues, and they seem to be getting their money’s worth. Earlier this month, the union and the medical center agreed to a new contract that gives nurses a 20% pay raise over two years.

“It’s about fairness,” said union President Deb Snell, a registered nurse in the hospital’s intensive care unit. “Without a union, you’re on your own.”

Nurses — or anyone else, for that matter — shouldn’t have their pay determined by whether “your boss likes you or not,” Snell said.

(By the way, Snell didn’t have to ask permission from UVM Medical Center public relations office before talking with me. “If they tried that, I’d laugh in their face,” Snell said.)

DHMC nurses aren’t unionized, but not for lack of trying. Drives were started in 2008 and 2010, but both fizzled out. In 2019, a group of DHMC nurses reached out to the Northeast Nurses Association, or NENA for short, about initiating another union effort. However, it “didn’t lead to an organizing campaign,” Nela Hadzic, who directs organizing for NENA, told me last week.

From what I’ve heard, the 2,500 nurses at DHMC and its clinics earn decent wages, which helps explain why unionizing hasn’t caught on. Experienced nurses in some departments can earn $100,000 a year, I’m told.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, however, nurses across the country have discovered that money and job satisfaction don’t always go hand in hand. Many are now prioritizing workplace safety and health.

“With more than 100,000 Americans hospitalized and many among their ranks infected, nurses and other health workers remain in a precarious frontline against the coronavirus and have turned again and again to unions for help,” The New York Times wrote in 2021.

In the last year or so, nurses at three hospitals voted to unionize through the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the organization that worked with DHMC nurses during the 2008 and 2010 drives.

“A lot of nurses are realizing they can’t count on the government to protect them when their lives are in jeopardy every day,” said David Schildmeier, spokesman for the third largest U.S. union of nurses and health professionals with 23,000 members.

Like many hospitals, DHMC is struggling to recruit and retain nurses. According to its website, DHMC has about 250 openings.

On Thursday, I asked DHMC spokeswoman Audra Burns via email if supporting a union effort might help in recruiting. I didn’t hear back.

The nurse behind the Instagram page has done some informal polling to gauge the interest in unionizing. Responses have shown about a 50/50 split.

“I’m just making art,” the nurse told the Valley News. “Somebody else can champion that issue.”

It remains to be seen if a champion will emerge. In the meantime, DHMC nurses will remain powerless to speak freely and openly about their workplace.

Just the way their bosses like it.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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