10 smartest things people in healthcare do

There is no one type of "smart." The adjective changes meaning based on its context, and even then there can be different kinds of smart. Street smart, book smart, financially smart.

Healthcare is no exception: clinically smart, strategically smart, managerially smart.

If you work in healthcare, there's always room to grow and learn and progress, no matter what types of smarts you have.

Here are 10 of the smartest things people in healthcare do.

Invest in data analytics. Data is foundational for progress and innovation. If there is no record of the way things were or are, innovators can't begin to understand how to move forward. Currently the healthcare industry is talking a lot about the triple aim, this idea put forth by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement outlining three key points that will better the industry: improving patient experience, bettering population health and reducing the cost of care. But talking about the triple aim isn't enough. Leaders in healthcare, whether physicians or not, need to embody and commit to this new standard, which starts with data and data analytics.

"The initiatives at the center of the triple aim are the same initiatives healthcare is focused on today," says Marilyn Palmer, DO, vice president of physician services with executive search firm B. E. Smith. "Healthcare needs trained and experienced leaders to navigate these changes."

Refine skill sets and non-clinical acumen. In recent years, physicians have increasingly expanded their knowledge bases beyond lectures at medical school and experiences in residency. Physician leaders are enrolling in new programs and classes to gain a broader base of knowledge outside the clinical realm.

One such example is the rise of the MD/MBA degree. A recent report in The Atlantic indicates the number of MD/MBA programs in the United States rose from six to 25 in just 20 years. This may be unsurprising given how physicians are gaining traction in leadership roles, whether in the C-suite as CMOs or as physicians-turned-executives who turn in scrubs for suits.

Kathy Noland, PhD, vice president of senior executive search at B. E. Smith, says many of her clients are seeking leaders, physician or otherwise, with a comprehensive skill set to lead organizations into an uncertain future. This skill set requires but is not limited to strong communication and team facilitation skills, technology expertise and clinical and analytical knowledge for population health management. "Additionally, our clients are seeking, especially with physician leaders, financial acumen and an understanding of healthcare reimbursement," Dr. Noland says. "Additional skill sets include calculated risk taking, innovation and understanding intergenerational differences now that there are four generations of leadership in organizations."

Healthcare leaders are asked to wear many hats these days, and given the current path of the industry, it is unlikely that they will return to their siloed areas of expertise any time soon.

Volunteer to be involved in strategic initiatives. Stepping up in times of need not only demonstrates commitment to an organization, but it also allows — or forces — individuals to gain new skills. "Volunteering for key projects can put [new leaders] in the center of operational and strategic initiatives and [underline their] commitment to building their skill repertoire and staying current on a national level," says Dr. Noland.

Such strategic initiatives may include implementing health IT projects, assessing current and future needs, developing physician-integration plans or spearheading population health projects.

Additionally, Dr. Palmer suggests new leaders identify mentors within their organizations who are well experienced and respected. "These mentors can help new and future leaders grow by developing and strengthening the skills needed to motivate people and move the organization forward."

She adds this dual commitment, both personally and professionally, is a key trait that will help leaders continue to grow.

Join professional organizations. Being smart relative to a particular industry is contingent upon a commitment to lifelong learning. Healthcare is constantly changing. Educational institutions and personal mentors may not always be able to keep up with the evolving landscape, but professional organizations offer a forum for members to discuss and debate the ideas and challenges they face.

Dr. Noland says professional associations such as the American Association of Physician Leadership and the American College of Healthcare Executives provide continued development and leadership support.

Dr. Palmer adds that these groups provide valuable training and leadership development, which is essential in some leadership transitions. She says many younger leaders are proactively joining these associations to develop leadership skills before they move into executive positions.

Embody a team-based approach. Administrative differences are only going to become barriers to progress in the healthcare industry. Not only can all stakeholders in healthcare stand to learn from one another, but a team approach ensures any issues are addressed thoroughly and comprehensively. The divide between clinicians and non-clinicians also has to dissolve, suggests Igor Belokrinitsky, vice president of consulting firm Strategy&, especially when tackling and understanding changes coming about in the evolving landscape.

"It's not just the physicians getting together discussing journal articles," Mr. Belokrinitsky says. "It's the entire department talking about a new pathway for treating cancer. The good news is you don't have to do it alone."

Mr. Belokrinitsky says Strategy& often hosts workshops facilitating discussions between physicians, nurses, medical technicians and administrators around one table, and the questions and conversations largely lead to new insights about how they can provide better care.

The team-based approach also allows for grassroots change to occur. When employees feel as though they are part of a team and know they are being heard and respected, they may feel like they have more of a stake in the matter and be the force to initiate change.

"Very often people know the right thing to do but have a hard time getting someone to listen to them or have a hard time building business cases," Mr. Belokrinitsky says. "It's just a matter of creating an environment where people are comfortable sharing ideas."

Be uncompromisingly obsessive about waste. Mr. Belokrinitsky says this is a crucial characteristic for any professional success in healthcare. "Every time we have waste in the health system, it results in a worse experience for everybody; worse quality and safety and higher costs," he says. "If we really want to be compassionate and patient-centric, a major part of that is being considerate about how much this is going to cost the patient, the employers, the community and the taxpayers who are picking up the rest of the tab."

Waste turns into reduced value, and value is cementing itself as the backbone of the healthcare industry. Those in healthcare who foresee themselves remaining in the industry are tasked with making value the number one priority. Once they do so, the commitment will spread throughout an organization.

For example, physicians might focus on tightening patient care options to reduce overtreatment, and hospital administrators might initiate projects to boost efficiency of operational processes.

"People who become good at [finding and getting rid of waste], people who are vigilant with this can really have a lot of impact in their organization," Mr. Belokrinitsky continues. "It's contagious. It's very empowering. Teaching people the tools and techniques for mining waste and getting rid of it and making care more patient-centric tends to be very empowering for everybody as a whole."

Treat patients like the people they are. Healthcare is riddled with data. Patient data, structured and unstructured EMR data, financial data, population health data. Even diagnostic and reimbursement codes are a series of numbers and letters, a quantitative approach to a qualitative experience.

But healthcare is about caring for people, not caring for ICD-9 codes, and that means taking into consideration the parts of life that happen outside of hospital walls. "Part of it is being able to engage the patient and see them as an entire person as opposed to just a disease or a set of symptoms," Mr. Belokrinitsky says. "[There's a sense of] 'This thing is broken, so let's fix it,' as opposed to, 'Here's a human being who might be going through a divorce or bankruptcy and has anger management issues and is overweight and lives in a food desert.'"

What's more, those in healthcare need to have a sense of cultural literacy and be attuned to cultural difference, both geographically and generationally, that can affect a patient's understanding of care.

"People from different cultures have different norms for how they communicate the level of pain, how assertive they are, how much they see a provider of care as a figure of authority," says Mr. Belokrinitsky. "It is quite challenging because it becomes not about treating the condition and more about treating the human. And what is the best way to engage that particular human?"

Commit to be fit. Before a plane takes off, flight attendants go through their safety demonstration. In the event of a pressure change in the cabin, yellow oxygen masks descend from the ceiling. "Be sure to affix your own mask before assisting others," flight attendants advise. To effectively help others, you first have to help yourself.

Patients, and perhaps even other employees, are less inclined to follow leaders if they do not embody the principles or ideals that they preach. The urban legend floats around the healthcare industry of the overweight physician who tells the overweight patient he needs to lose weight. Why should the patient listen to the person who doesn't practice what he prescribes?

The relationship between physicians and patients is highly personal, upheld by significant trust, respect and credibility. If patients can't or don't trust their physicians, their inclinations to follow treatments may bottom out.

The same extends to employees and executive leadership. How can executive leaders rally their teams around population health improvement projects and then smoke a pack a day?

"The wellness focus in healthcare extends to a leader's role as an ambassador," says Dr. Noland. "Leaders need to embody that commitment to professional growth and personal wellness. Leaders committing to their own personal health and their professional growth can be great role models."

Get a flu shot. In a similar vein to leading by example, flu shots are indisputably one of the most effective infection prevention tools in healthcare today. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates more than 200,000 people will be hospitalized for flu-related complications every year. Children younger than 2 and adults over 65 have higher susceptibility to the flu, and death becomes a higher risk when such patients are already immunocompromised in the hospital. The CDC recommends all healthcare professionals receive a yearly flu shot to protect both themselves and their patients.

What's more, a recent study from California public health data from 2009-2012 finds for every 15 healthcare providers who receive a flu shot, there is one fewer case of the flu in the community. It's a triple win: self-protection, protection of others and a boost to population health.

Do humanitarian work to revitalize your foundation. When working in multibillion dollar academic medical centers or running huge nonprofit and for-profit organizations, the foundation of healthcare can get lost in the shuffle of accreditation surveys, reimbursement changes, physician-integration discussions and provider competition. While all of these processes are important or necessary to running an organization, what is equally important is for individuals to remember why they want to be in healthcare in the first place.

"In thinking how we evolved, both as an individual as well as an executive who is trying to transform their healthcare organization, it's important not to lose their foundation, which is the reason why they got into healthcare in the first place — to help people, improve health and to heal," Mr. Belokrinitsky says.

Participating in humanitarian work — international or domestic — may help serve as a reminder of the very reasons healthcare workers do what they do. If you've forgotten, work with people who simply need care.

Amidst the numerous pressures of the industry, the core reason why most healthcare workers are there is to commit to the patient and demonstrate human compassion. This foundation, Mr. Belokrinitsky says, is palpable.

"It makes healthcare a very special industry, unlike any other," he says. "You really feel it when you go into certain hospitals…. People dedicate their whole life to this compassionate care, this personalized care. It's important not to lose that."

More articles on leadership:

Hey bosses: Your employees think they can do a better job than you
Your next CEO could come from an unlikely place
25 healthcare leaders share their best piece of advice

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