SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -

The president of Mercy Hospital Springfield, the largest employer in the Springfield metropolitan area, announced Friday that he will leave his position this spring to take a similar position in Little Rock, Ark.  Dr. Robert Steele, a pediatrician, has worked at Mercy (formerly St. John's Regional Health Center) for 17 years but has been president for only about 13 months. 

Steele is the first physician to be president of Mercy Hospital Springfield.  Mercy has about 8,700 employees in Greene, Christian, Webster, Polk and Dallas counties in its hospitals and clinics, making it the largest employer in this area.

Last Monday, Steele sent a letter to Mercy employees in which he outlined reasons that they shouldn't join or form a union.  The letter didn't say what group of employees is pushing for union representation, or what union might be helping some employees.  Some employees were taken by surprise by the letter because they hadn't heard about a unionization effort.

"Personally, we believe that joining a union is both unnecessary and not in the best interests of you, your family, our hospital, or our community," he wrote.  "We believe that at Mercy we accomplish the most by working together as a team.  We also don't believe that you need to pay an outside, third party to speak for you."

Subsequently, the Springfield News-Leader reported that Steele was one of 16 pediatricians at St. John's who petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for a union election in December 1998.  At the time, St. John's had changed the compensation system for physicians and some of them were making less money than they had in the past.

Steele issued a statement to the News-Leader for that report in which he said, "It was through my experience in the late '90s that I saw how effective open and direct dialogue can be when resolving co-workers' concerns.  We spoke honestly with our leadership and they listened thoughtfully.  That's what I want for all of our co-workers."

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News release from Mercy Springfield on Friday afternoon:

After 17 years of service in Springfield, Mercy pediatrician and president of Mercy Hospital Springfield, Dr. Robert W. Steele, has announced he’s heading home. He’s accepted the position of chief strategy officer at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, Ark. It’s the hospital where his father served as a pediatric infectious disease doctor and where Dr. Steele spent summers doing research in the lab – developing his love for science and medicine.

“I love Mercy, and I have really enjoyed my time here. But when an offer came to work alongside a childhood friend, in a city I consider to be ‘home’ - and where my wife has family - I just couldn’t turn it down.”

During his time as president of Mercy Hospital Springfield, Dr. Steele has overseen the opening of the new children’s hospital and the construction of Mercy Rehabilitation Hospital Springfield. “Dr. Steele has been a strong leader and outstanding clinician during his time here,” said Jon Swope, president of Mercy’s Central Region. “He is a strategic thinker who brought so many talents to the organization; his upbeat personality and skill set will be missed.”

Dr. Steele will be with Mercy until May 2. Swope will assume interim duties as president of Mercy Hospital Springfield during the transition period, while continuing his role as president of Mercy’s Central Region. Dr. Alan Scarrow will continue his role as president of Mercy Clinic Springfield, and Jay Guffey will continue to lead as senior vice president and chief operating officer for Mercy Hospital Springfield.

“I will deeply miss my patients and the Springfield community,” said Dr. Steele. “I have enjoyed working with the outstanding leadership team, co-workers and physicians at Mercy, who strive everyday to meet the needs of our patients. It has truly been an honor.”