4 Leadership Practices to Guide Hospitals Through Change

Never has the adage "change is constant," been more true than in healthcare and hospital settings today. Macro economic trends including; the poor economy, soaring unemployment, high-deductible health plans and less capacity of state and federal agencies to fund hospital organizations, have all thrust healthcare organizations into a culture shock. Historically, some of these organizations are known for being slow, beaureaucratic political organizations. Now, to remain in existence or better yet, be competitive, they must become fast-paced, systematic, streamlined and focused on execution. It is critical they embrace an entrepreneurial approach across all political systems embedded into the organization including: physicians, nurses, support staff and administration.

In this type of challenging setting, leadership philosophy is paramount. It is essential that leadership inspires and motivates, while ensuring accountability. If this approach is built into the operating systems of the healthcare organization, it's a sure recipe for success.

1. Align organization with mission and vision. When a healthcare organization experiences dynamic change it must be led by executives who bring clarity to the overall organization message — as it relates to its mission and vision. Leaders must define how the organization will operate and demonstrate how they will hold individuals accountable for the success of the mission. All missions should contain a commitment to the "patient experience." Often times, during the course of dynamic change and economic pressures, the focal point on the patient diminishes. Exceeding the expectations of the patient and operating a successful healthcare business can be done simultaneously. One should never come at the expense of the other. It has to be a "both/and" proposition. Great healthcare leaders embrace this concept and recognize its importance.  

2. Establish an effective communication strategy. The type of leadership success described above can be achieved by creating a comprehensive communication strategy and system. Every time a material change or decision is made, all team members must clearly understand their role in the logic behind the decision and what the overall expectations are. A simple tactic leaders can integrate is ending each meeting asking, "Who needs to know this information?" and "How it is going to be communicated?" While it may sound overly simplistic, this ensures no one gets left out of the loop and accountability remains in play. During organizational change, lack of communication, misinformation or lack of clarity around roles and expectations is what leads to inefficiency, resentment and interruption in execution of the change.

3. Gain buy-in from senior leaders. As with most things, change needs to start at the top! Clear and consistent communication from the CEO/president is imperative. If employees see or sense the initiative is not fully supported by their leaders, it will often result in failure because the employee will tend to just "ride it out." All executives must be rowing the boat in the same direction and clearly understand their respective role in the success of the initiative.

4. Demand accountability. Setting up accountability tools and measurements and comparing those to the standards set from the leaders of the organization is another important step in the process. These tools let the employees know what is expected of them and whether they are being consistently successful, and if not, gives management the tools to proactively solve challenges throughout the organization.

Every position within a healthcare organization can be held accountable for their role. Front desk staff can be measured by collecting accurate data and collecting payments from patients; physicians can be held to productivity, documentation and compliance standards; administrators can be held to top and bottom line performance as well as cost standards; marketing personnel can be measured by growth of market share. As long as the goals that are set stay consistent with the overall mission of the organization, these accountability standards will create a system that puts the organization in a successful position and allows it to communicate when it's off track.

In today's healthcare environment, leaders must always ask the questions "If we were starting the initiative or process today, what would it look like?" and "How are we going measure if is successful?" If they can answer those questions, successful change is just a few steps away.

David MacDonald is CEO of Aegle Advisors, a healthcare management consultancy based in Marion, Mass.

Related Articles on Healthcare Leadership:

6 Tips for Running an Effective Hospital
Healthcare Leadership: 7 Adjectives to Describe the Best Hospital Executives
11 Leading Health System CEOs Share Top Goals for 2012

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