Bridgeport Hospital CEO William Jennings Addresses Students

Bridgeport Hospital CEO William Jennings speaks in University Commons.

News Story: September 1, 2012

William M. Jennings, president and chief executive officer of Bridgeport Hospital and executive vice president of Yale New Haven Health System, was on hand at Sacred Heart University recently to discuss ethical dilemmas and new trends in health care with health professions and business students. The talk was sponsored by SHU’s College of Health Professions and the Jack Welch College of Business.

Jennings began with a joke and bragged about Bridgeport Hospital (the first hospital in Fairfield County, the longest-running nursing program in Connecticut, the lowest serious event rate of any Connecticut hospital and the highest code survival rate in the county) before getting down to the business of sharing the ethical dilemmas he has faced during a career that took him to a variety of medical institutions.

“I want to talk about values. The easiest response is often the unethical response. I learned that the day I lost a corpse,” he said, recalling an incident that occurred before he came to Bridgeport Hospital. He told the students about a day when there were two bodies in the hospital morgue – one going to a mortuary, the other to the state university for science. In a mix-up, the wrong body was transported to the university where the error was caught and the corpse was returned to the hospital. “The initial reaction of the hospital’s risk manager was ‘no harm, no foul – leave it alone,’ but that didn’t seem like the appropriate response. It was contrary to the values of the hospital and my own personal values.

“We decided to inform the family,” he continued. “Well, no good deed goes unpunished. They were furious and threatened litigation. Bu it was the right and necessary thing to do. The institution’s values remained intact, and the story eventually became a morality tale around the hospital – a reminder that the easy route is not always the right route.”

He referenced a poll that reported 88 percent of the Millennial generation believe that people have different values at work than in their personal lives, and 66 percent say that should not be the case. “People at the top of organizations are putting profits and success ahead of values. Values need to come before any other motivation, including profits,” he said.

He cited another difficult decision when he had to fire a nun who was one of the founders of the hospital he was running. “She refused to practice the hospital’s values and created an unpleasant work environment that led to turnover,” he said. “When she refused to make changes, I ended up offering her the choice to retire and leave with fanfare and celebration or leave embattled. She chose celebration.”

All employees at Bridgeport Hospital have the company values listed on their ID cards, Jennings said. Those values are excellence, courtesy, participation, honesty and image. “They can refer to them when they need to make a tough decision or use them as a touchstone.”

He noted that the era of medical and technological advancements will lead to more ethical issues. “In the 21st century, there will be more changes than we have seen in history,” he said.

One advancement that is already causing challenges is electronic medical records (EMRs). While there are many advantages to EMRs, including the ability to transfer information through the healthcare system and among community practices and the ability of patients to access their own records, there are also disadvantages. “On one hand, information will flow freely and will minimize mistakes and lead to greater patient safety. On the other, the copy & paste feature is a new risk that comes with electronic records.”

He concluded his presentation by presenting several scenarios and asking members of the audience what they thought was the ethical course of action. The scenarios included:

  • Deciding whether to close a labor & delivery service at an acute care hospital
  • Deciding whether to self-report the death of a drug user with no family who hanged herself
  • Deciding what to do when a surveillance camera uncovered an affair between a hospital’s top revenue-producing surgeon and a scrub nurse
  • Deciding whether to give a 35-year-old woman the tubal ligation she requested in a Catholic hospital.
  • Deciding what to do when one of the hospital’s top surgeons displayed inappropriate rage at co-workers on two separate occasions

The scenarios led to some spirited discussion with audience members occasionally disagreeing with the decisions that Jennings made under fire.

“Mr. Jennings provided clever and insightful glimpses into the ethical concerns with the modern medical system. He captured my attention with provocative questions and stories regarding moral dilemmas that he has personally dealt with as a hospital manager,” said Tom Lucey, a second-year student in the Physical Therapy doctorate program. “Throughout the hour, audience members were wrestling with their own interpretations of wrong and right. What I took from Mr. Jennings is that not all business/ethical matters are clear cut, and even the most experienced and respected professionals can struggle with moral decisions.”