Adaptability is key for health system success. Can it be learned?

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Without a doubt, COVID-19 will be remembered as one of the most destructive episodes the American healthcare system has ever experienced. Through it all, health systems have demonstrated their remarkable resilience. It’s of profound importance to discern what exactly makes this resilience possible. 

The answer can be boiled down to a single word: adaptability.

But what qualities make a health system adaptable? And how can leaders instill those qualities within their own organizations?

Drawing upon dozens of interviews that NRC Health has conducted with health-system executives, this article explores the answers to these questions.

1. Adaptable organizations protect their teams

Among all the conversations with health executives, the strongest common thread was this: a deep attentiveness to the well-being of employees.

This means more than just the baseline protections of employee physical safety. Adequate PPE, appropriate caseloads, and reasonable working hours are table-stakes for ensuring organizational flexibility.

The requirements of adaptability, rather, speak to something deeper. Enacting strategic adjustments and responding effectively to a crisis requires a staff that’s engaged, energized, and ready to contribute. It’s about psychological well-being, as well as physical. 

This is why leaders of adaptable organizations are very conscientious of employee morale. They take every available measure to safeguard their teams from the dangers of burnout

Here are two examples:

Orlando Health used pet therapy, festive parades and banners, and an extensive nightly phone conversation with floor staff to demonstrate support for the frontlines. As Jenny Beakley, the organization’s administrator of patient care, put it, “We did absolutely everything we could to make sure our teams felt informed and protected.”

Wellstar Paulding Hospital kept its staff engaged by actively soliciting their input on strategy. By asking managers on the floor for solutions, leadership ensured that initiatives “bubbled up” to them, instead of trickling down. “You have to respect the autonomy of your team if you want them to feel like they’re more than just their job titles,” says John Keuven, the hospital’s president. 

2. Adaptable organizations work to win trust

Trust is another theme stressed by leaders at adaptable organizations. They universally agree that to succeed in pursuing new strategic initiatives, leaders must earn the confidence of their communities. 

If consumers don’t trust a healthcare organization, they’re unlikely to stick with it through times of transition. This can be devastating for the patient-provider relationships that are so crucial for sustaining organizational health—and it’s another problem that was made all the worse by the pandemic. 

Effective leaders, therefore, expend considerable energy in winning the confidence of their constituents. Here’s how two leading organizations managed it, during the worst of 2020:

UCLA Health’s leadership observed, in the early phases of the pandemic, that consumers were hesitant to visit their providers. Much like elsewhere in the country, UCLA’s consumers feared infection from hospital waiting rooms. 

Understanding that it was their role to ease these fears and restore consumer confidence, leaders at UCLA embarked on a comprehensive communication campaign called #TeamLA, designed to combat coronavirus misinformation.

“People were really hungry for guidance,” says Tanya Adreadis, UCLA’s Chief of Marketing. “To give it to them, we had to truly understand who we were communicating with, and what they needed to move toward a productive course of action.”

OrthoNebraska faced a similar problem, but with a twist. Orthopedic care is uniquely dependent on in-person consultations. This meant that while the broader healthcare industry had experienced a largely effective transition to virtual care, OrthoNebraska’s patients were much more hesitant. 

To win them over, the organization’s leaders had to go to considerable lengths to prove the effectiveness of virtual care. Their approach: use the testimony of other patients.

“We published ratings and reviews on our site,” says Bill Citro, a marketing leader for the organization. “Our patients, they’re maybe not so certain about virtual care. But with those reviews, they have that validation. They see that other people tried it, so they know it will probably work for them.”

3. Adaptable organizations listen to their customers

Sometimes, however, adaptability isn’t just a matter of persuasion. 

In the end, the most adaptable organizations were also the most responsive to their community’s needs. They implicitly grasped the importance of the patient’s point of view and used that perspective to inform their most important decisions.

Virtua Health, for instance, experienced very much the same customer hesitation during the height of the pandemic. Patients were putting off care, sometimes even to the detriment of their long-term health. 

Virtua’s leadership did their best to ease concerns and combat misinformation. “We have to reiterate these messages over and over again, that social distancing doesn’t mean medical distancing,” says Dennis Pullin, the organization’s CEO.

In the end, however, some proportion of the population was still reluctant to receive care—so Pullin and his team decided to meet these patients where they were. Rather than try to coax them to the hospital, they deployed a fleet of mobile care units to alleviate the gaps in care.

“If patients didn’t want to see us, we wanted to bring care to them,” Pullin says.

This solution sums up perhaps the most important lesson behind adaptability. Maneuvering around obstacles requires staying nimble, flexible, and—most important of all—receptive

As Pullin put it, “I’m a big believer in what we can learn from the data—and more to the point, what we can learn from listening to our customers.”

That’s a profound lesson for organizations striving to stay flexible, both during the pandemic and beyond.

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