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Empathy in Times of Crisis

Posted By Helen Riess, M.D.

We are facing a critical time of fear and uncertainty with the invasion of the novel Corona virus on the world stage, when healthcare organizations are scrambling to keep patients and workers safe, informed and calm. When fear takes hold, we can expect reactions to follow along a continuum from frank denial to full scale panic. Both of these extreme responses are not only unhelpful, but dangerous.

When people raid grocery stores or hospital shelves and stock up on more hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes or face masks than they could possibly need, they leave others vulnerable to infection and with even greater fear and loss of control. In a time of crisis, we need to worry about other people as much or even more than ourselves.

Many regard empathy as merely a soft emotion of feeling sorry for others. Empathy is a powerful tool in times of crisis (see more at TEDx The Power of Empathy.) Our hard-wired capacity for empathy involves both cognitive and emotional centers of the brain, and when effectively harnessed together, can help leaders provide truthful, caring, and helpful information while at the same time remain calm, steady, and decisive. Empathy is a crucial part of emotional intelligence that leaders need to employ in times of crisis.

How does empathy relate to emotional intelligence (EI)? EI is the ability to practice: (1) self-awareness (2) other awareness, (3) self-management, and (4) relationship management. Being alert to these practices and actually putting them into action through empathy can greatly impact overall health and well-being – of ourselves as well as others – during a healthcare crisis.

Self-Awareness

Self-awareness means recognizing your own emotions. Before springing into action, you must first assess your own mental states so you can manage them. Many empathetic people are better at perceiving the emotional needs of others than their own. Just as oncologists must steady themselves before delivering bad news so they don’t inflict their own stress onto their patients, you must recognize your own emotions. Self-awareness also involves understanding your own vulnerabilities and remembering what you need to do to remain calm and safe. In our current crisis, this means you must take into account how your decision-making may be influenced by your emotional state, and then adjust your choices accordingly.

Other-Awareness and Empathy

Every human being has a longing to be seen and understood, and this longing becomes much more acute in times of crisis. “I see you” is the meaning of the Zulu word for hello, “Sawubona”. It is also what opens the gate for other-awareness and empathy. It takes intention and openness to take in the emotional and physical expressions of others. Instead of looking at a waiting room as a sea of humanity, it’s important to see each person as an individual. Just a kind look in the eye or using the person’s name more than once in a conversation will help people know they matter.

Other-awareness involves not only appreciating the feelings of others but also understanding their perspectives and life circumstances. This capacity allows us to move beyond the chief complaints people have to valuing their chief concerns. Patients or co-workers who seem to be over-reacting to the current health crisis likely have some legitimate reasons for their fears. Genuine interest and careful listening will be necessary during this healthcare challenge to prevent dismissing concerns or labeling others. Showing empathy in this way will help calm fears and enable others to make rational choices for the care of themselves and others.

Self-Management and Self-Empathy

Implementing the tools that work best to calm your own fears requires knowing yourself and understanding your need for self-empathy. Contrary to popular belief, self-empathy is different from selfishness. It’s very hard to take good care of others if you neglect yourself. Self-empathy does not mean “I care more about myself more than you” but rather, “I need to take care of myself so I’m able to take care of you.” Every healthcare provider and staff member needs their own unique tool kit for self-management and know when to use it. And when we are asked to use social distancing and self-quarantine to avoid virus exposure, we do this to help both ourselves and others.

Relationship Management

The secret to effective relationship management is empathic listening and seeking to understand others’ feelings, thoughts and circumstances. It is essential to finding common ground. In a crisis, we need to relay facts with empathy and clarity. False assurances are worthless and cause greater alarm when truth is revealed. In other words, spreading false hope is destructive. True empathy requires the ability to tune into the fears and concerns of others and provide the best recommendations, even if they are not what people want to hear. It is walking the fine line of perceiving and taking care of immediate emotions while not losing sight of what is the best medical care in the long term. No one wants to hear that his/her normal routines and practices are now curtailed, but when focused on the long-term health of our society, the short-term restrictions make sense.

The Power of Empathy: A Call to Action

At this time of international emergency, there’s an urgent need for global empathy. The current situation calls for us to empower ourselves and others to collectively come together, bringing our best selves to the forefront to overcome this global health crisis. Far from the notion of survival of the fittest, where the strongest individuals only take care of themselves, we need altruism, cooperation, and collaboration to save our society as a whole. It is time to think about our patients as individuals, as well as our neighbors, co-workers, friends and family, and do what we can to support one another and to ask for help when we need it ourselves.

Helping each other is what brings us together and enlivens our spirit and our communities, and it is needed now more than ever, locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.

 

Dr. Riess is a psychiatrist and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She directs the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She has devoted her career to the art and science of healing relationships. Her research has been published in leading medical journals and has won many awards. Dr Riess’s TEDx talk “The power of Empathy TEDX” has been viewed by more than 500,000 viewers. Her new book, The Empathy Effect has been licensed in nine foreign countries. In 2012, Dr. Riess co-founded Empathetics.com an organization that provides evidence-based empathy and communication skills training for healthcare and education. Dr. Riess and her teams are dedicated to transforming healthcare systems into compassionate care systems. 

The Hard Work of Health Care Transformation

Richard M.J. Bohmer, M.B., Ch.B., M.P.H.

Governments and regulators influence the performance of health care organizations and practitioners primarily through positive and negative financial incentives, regulatory constraints on their licenses to practice, and support of performance-improvement activities through education, research, and measurement programs. The financial approaches aim to motivate change in the way organizations and practitioners configure their systems and deliver care, under the assumption that once they’re motivated to seek surplus or avoid sanction, they’ll be willing and able to make local operational changes to reduce cost and improve safety, patient experience, and outcomes. Unfortunately, experience shows that although a changed market may be a helpful precondition to local performance improvement, it hardly guarantees effective operational change.

Some organizations have successfully transformed themselves, however, substantially improving efficiency and quality. How have they done so? One popular approach is top-management–led structural and governance change — moving boxes on organizational charts of an individual entity or regional system. Services are merged or broken up, new roles defined, and new responsibilities assigned. This approach appeals to boards, CEOs, and consultants because big changes can be made rapidly. But such rearrangements may disappoint.1 Examination of organizations that have achieved and sustained substantial performance improvements reveals that lasting transformation requires the relentless hard work of local operational redesign.

Organizations’ delivery of care is ultimately governed by structures and processes at the ward, clinic, or practice level. These elements have usually accreted over time, often in response to regulations or technology and without subsequent performance review or deliberate updating. In contrast, successful “transformers,” from Seattle’s Virginia Mason Medical Center to the Salford Royal National Health Service Foundation Trust in England, constantly make small-scale changes to their structures and processes over long periods.2 Everything from communicating with patients to cleaning gastroscopes to ordering tests and choosing therapies has been subject to redesign. Major change emerges from aggregation of marginal gains.

These organizations’ experiences clarify that multidisciplinary teams must undertake this redesign work.3 The provision of modern health care integrates so many specialized skills — clinical and nonclinical — and patients routinely cross so many intra- and interorganizational boundaries that no single designer can create a highly functioning microsystem. Such teams often have diverse membership, including not only patients, referring doctors, corporate staff, and community service providers but also design engineers. When these teams redesign local structures and processes, they do more than write a “best practice protocol.” They also reconfigure the workflow, workforce, supporting technology, and even physical care delivery sites.

Other hard truths emerge from studying successful organizations. Teams often redesign local structures and processes despite the lack of senior support, adequate data, capital, or a reimbursement system that rewards their efforts. Although consultants routinely list support from senior leaders as a key prerequisite for change, initiation and early leadership of such teams often comes from the middle — committed clinicians and managers volunteering early mornings and late evenings to create better-functioning systems for their patients. Teams use whatever imperfect data are available, often collecting essential data by hand; they recognize that important organizational design decisions are often made with insufficient information. And few redesigns get it 100% right the first time. In practice, health care transformation is a long series of local experiments.

Transformation requires sustained change in individual behavior, team interactions, and operations design. Although consultants and information technology vendors can help, experience has shown that more than anything, change depends on internal redesign work.

If detailed, low-level, repetitive redesign of local operating systems one at a time is the reality of improving health care, how do successful transformers support their staff through that process? How do they change in a systematic way? And how can organizations seeking transformation make the process easier and faster than it was for the vanguard?

Examination of high-performing organizations suggests seven essential organizational elements that support orchestrated team-based redesign. First, these organizations deploy many redesign teams concurrently — some permanent, some temporary. Virginia Mason convenes small teams transiently to redesign key processes, whereas Intermountain Healthcare (Utah and Idaho) has a permanent team structure responsible for redesign and long-term oversight. Both organizations have developed expertise in managing multidisciplinary teams.

These redesign teams are typically led by clinicians, although managers are well represented. They aim to improve the quality and the efficiency of care simultaneously, and the organizations see no conflict between those goals. Because many clinicians don’t feel empowered or prepared to lead such efforts or feel comfortable with resource stewardship, transformers invest heavily in leadership development, usually creating their own leadership programs rather than outsourcing them, and they free leaders from some clinical duties to create sufficient time for this work.

Transforming organizations have a routinized process for change. The basis for their standardized approach to analysis, redesign, improvement, and management varies, but what’s most important is not which model — lean manufacturing, continuous improvement, six sigma — is chosen but that the process is internalized, repetitive, and consistent so that the same language is used throughout the organization and independent teams can undertake redesign autonomously.

In addition, these organizations have an internal support resource that includes skills in design, project management, data analysis, financial analysis, and organizational development. Organizations may be tempted to rely on management consultants for support, but the transformers have worked to develop these capabilities internally.

They also have well-developed measurement systems that include both a capability for developing or reviewing measures of clinical or financial performance and the capacity to collect, report, and act on internally generated data. Data are often an Achilles’ heel: few doctors believe they have adequate data for system redesign. Transformers, however, do the best they can with available information, recognizing that data will improve over time. They address clinicians’ need for evidence-based decision making by treating design change as a test of concept, rather than implementation of a known answer. Redesign becomes a process for testing new metrics and data sources, which can, over time, mitigate short-term data inadequacy.

Furthermore, a senior oversight group is responsible for establishing teams, setting their priorities, monitoring their progress, addressing institutional barriers to change, and integrating multiple teams’ work. This group ensures that teams remain focused on organizational priorities and have the necessary resources, and it resolves conflicts that arise when multiple groups make demands on shared resources. The teams thus become part of a broader structure for clinical governance and form the core of performance-management and improvement efforts. At Intermountain, the permanent teams both redesign and manage care systems.

Finally, because any model of team-based redesign devolves authority and accountability away from top executives, transformers have invested in creating a widely understood set of unifying values and norms. Whether expressed in value statements, compacts, or credos, these standards help align staff behavior both with the organization’s goals and among the professions working together to meet those goals, and they guide behavior when there’s no clear decision rule.

Many organizations find this approach challenging, and not only because it’s slow or requires investment. It also risks requiring job cuts, or at least job changes. Most challenging, however, is the fundamental change it represents in an enterprise’s governance. Clinician-led teams take control of patient-facing organizational subsystems and reform clinical protocols and operations, review performance data and make modifications, and may even have local financial control and responsibility. In effect, instead of taking their work context as a given, staff actively create the local system needed to provide the best possible care. This shift may be a bridge too far for some organizations, especially those facing reduced revenue or an urgent need for a turnaround.

Unfortunately, in the longer term, the prolonged hard work of repetitive, incremental, and often small-scale rebuilding of local operating systems probably cannot be avoided. Individual behavior change motivated by payment reform may be insufficient to generate the quality and efficiency gains needed in coming years. In their first year, the Pioneer Accountable Care Organizations have achieved only modest results.4 However, organizations seeking transformation can ease the process by building the support system described above. The short-term investments that are required can be surprisingly small, because most organizations already have many of the requisite human assets. The most substantial hurdle, it seems, is the change in mindset.

Zero to 50,000 — The 20th Anniversary of the Hospitalist

Robert M. Wachter, M.D., and Lee Goldman, M.D., M.P.H.

Twenty years ago, we described the emergence of a new type of specialist that we called hospitalista “hospitalist.”1 Since then, the number of hospitalists has grown from a few hundred to more than 50,000 (see graph) — making this new field substantially larger than any subspecialty of internal medicine (the largest of which is cardiology, with 22,000 physicians), about the same size as pediatrics (55,000), and in fact larger than any specialty except general internal medicine (109,000) and family medicine (107,000). Approximately 75% of U.S. hospitals, including all highly ranked academic health centers, now have hospitalists. The field’s rapid growth has both reflected and contributed to the evolution of clinical practice over the past two decades.

In the mid-1990s, the combination of managed care for privately insured patients and Medicare’s diagnosis-related-group–based payment system for inpatients pushed hospitals to manage care more efficiently without sacrificing quality or alienating patients. Hospitalists emerged as one potential solution. Within a few years, evidence showed that using hospitalists could result in reduced costs, shortened lengths of stay, and preserved or even enhanced quality of care and patient satisfaction2,3 — in essence improving the value of care. The field was off and running.

For hospital medicine to grow as quickly as it has, many stars had to align, including a viable financial framework, a pool of qualified physicians, and enough force to overcome resistance to change. Remarkably, those stars did align.

The first issue was economic. By the mid-1990s, elective medical admissions had all but disappeared, but emergency admissions were increasing. Acutely ill patients needed rapid attention on admission and often multiple daily visits during hospitalization, regardless of whether that disrupted the flow of physicians’ outpatient practices. Moreover, the remuneration for nonprocedural inpatient care, especially given its growing complexity, was not high enough to make physicians who had historically been responsible for such care (primary care physicians in community settings and specialist and researcher attendings in academia) feel strongly about retaining their hospital roles. So most such physicians willingly turned inpatient care over to hospitalists.

How could hospitalists, then, fashion careers out of a role that was economically unattractive to their colleagues? Once evidence of substantial cost savings had accumulated, health care organizations found it advantageous to have hospitalist programs, and most provided financial support to create appealing jobs with reasonable salaries. Thanks to the value proposition and new duty-hour limits for residents, hospitalists also increasingly became responsible for staffing nonteaching services in teaching hospitals.

The second facilitator of hospitalist growth was the very large pool of general internists in the United States, most of whom were trained predominantly in inpatient settings. Many internists, whether newly minted or experienced, found the hospitalist role attractive, particularly given growing dissatisfaction with primary care internal medicine. In contrast, the small reservoirs of general internists in countries such as Canada and Britain have hindered efforts to build inpatient programs staffed by generalists.

Third, the quality, patient-safety, and value movements and widespread implementation of electronic health records all emerged just as the hospitalist field came of age. Hospitalists’ early emphasis on improving systems of care4 bolstered the field’s credibility and fostered the development of a cadre of young physicians who would ultimately assume local and national leadership roles. For example, the U.S. Surgeon General and the chief medical officer of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are hospitalists — an impressive validation of such a young field.

As the specialty grew in size and stature, the model spawned variations on its central theme. One obvious extension was pediatric hospitalists, who now account for approximately 10% of hospitalists. More creative variations include “hyphenated hospitalists,” such as surgical hospitalists (also called acute care surgeons), neuro-hospitalists, and obstetrical hospitalists. Medical hospitalists also often comanage care with surgeons or medical subspecialists, thereby reducing costs and allowing those specialists to concentrate on procedural tasks.5 Finally, financial penalties for readmissions have led many hospitalists to staff post–acute care facilities to improve coordination with colleagues at acute care hospitals.

Despite the hospitalist field’s unprecedented growth, there have been challenges. The model is based on the premise that the benefits of inpatient specialization and full-time hospital presence outweigh the disadvantages of a purposeful discontinuity of care. Although hospitalists have been leaders in developing systems (e.g., handoff protocols and post-discharge phone calls to patients) to mitigate harm from discontinuity, it remains the model’s Achilles’ heel.

Many hospitalists have added value as local leaders in quality improvement, safety, and innovation, but some have functioned more as shift workers. For example, many community hospitalists have a 7-days-on, 7-days-off schedule that focuses mainly on high-volume clinical work and sends an unspoken but clear message that, at the end of an intensive clinical “on” stint, one is “off” and uninvolved. Our impression is that hospitalist programs provide more value when hospitalists’ inpatient assignments (clinical “systole”) are complemented by a systems-oriented “diastole,” during which clinical activity is limited but they contribute to key institutional programs. Productive diastole is more likely when hospitalists have strong leadership, a robust professional-development curriculum, and a mutual hospital–hospitalist commitment to adding value during specified and structured nonclinical time.

Another problematic, though not unanticipated, consequence of the use of hospitalists has been a diminished role for specialists and researchers on teaching services. Because specialists are far less likely than they once were to serve as inpatient attendings, trainees have less contact with them and less exposure to basic and translational science.

Finally, the few academic hospitalist groups that have developed substantial research programs generally emphasize the implementation of quality- and systems-related initiatives. Hospitalists have been slow to pursue substantial inquiry into discovery related to the common inpatient diseases they see or to lead multicenter trials of new diagnostic or therapeutic approaches. This deficiency limits hospitalists’ credibility in academia and the advancement of the field.

Although we continue to believe that the hospitalist model is the best guarantor of high-quality, efficient inpatient care, it’s clear that today’s pressures require innovative approaches around this core. In addition to following patients in post–acute care facilities, another modified approach is to have a subgroup of hospitalists function as “comprehensivist” physicians who care for a small panel of the highest-risk, most frequently admitted outpatients and remain involved when hospitalization is required. This model aims to blend the advantages of the hospitalist model for the vast majority (>95%) of inpatients with the potential advantages of continuity for a small group of patients who are admitted repeatedly.

Hospitalist programs are innovating in other ways as well. Many are developing early-warning protocols in which electronic health record data are used to identify patients who are at risk for problems such as sepsis or falls. Others are implementing bedside ultrasonography for procedures and diagnosis, pioneering methods of making rounds more patient- and family-centric, implementing unit-based leadership teams, or applying process-improvement approaches such as the Toyota Production System to inpatient care.

Many academic programs are also experimenting with new ways of reconnecting specialists and scientists with trainees. Some have begun offering focused basic-science training to hospitalists, others have developed molecular medicine consult services, and still others have instituted dual attending programs, with a consultative teaching specialist joining a more hands-on teaching hospitalist. Such innovations are welcome and should be studied. In fact, the field’s greatest risk may well be complacency — failing to embrace the kinds of transformation and disruption that led to its birth, or being slow to address the inevitable side effects of even the best innovation.

When we described the hospitalist concept 20 years ago, we argued that it would become an important part of the health care landscape. Yet we couldn’t have predicted the growth and influence it has achieved. Today, hospital medicine is a respected field whose greatest legacies may be improvement of care and efficiency, injection of systems thinking into physician practice, and the vivid demonstration of our health care system’s capacity for massive change under the right conditions.

Latest Snapshot: Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU)

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Hospitals Have Room to Grow for Surgery Patient Safety Measures

More hospitals are meeting the surgical volume threshold, a key patient safety measure, although there is still room for growth.

By Sara Heath

– Adherence to key patient safety protocol during high-risk surgery may be getting better, but steps lay ahead for organizations delivering a slate of certain medical procedures, according to a new report from the Leapfrog Group.

The report, Safety in Numbers: Hospital Performance on Leapfrog’s Surgical Volume Standard Based on Results of the 2019 Leapfrog Hospital Survey, looked at how hospitals adhere to certain patient safety protocol when delivering one of eight common but high-risk surgeries.

Specifically, the report investigated how many hospitals deliver certain surgeries and meet what the Leapfrog Group calls its surgical volume threshold for those procedures. The surgical volume threshold refers to the minimum and maximum amount of times an organization administers a surgery.

When a hospital meets the minimum volume threshold, it is doing the surgery frequently enough to have experience in the area. But perform the procedure too often, the hospital runs the risk of spreading resources too thin.

The Leapfrog Group research team looked at how many hospitals meet the recommended volume thresholds for eight surgeries: bariatric surgery for weight loss, carotid endarterectomy, esophageal resection for cancer, lung resection for cancer, open aortic procedures, mitral valve repair and replacement, pancreatic resection for cancer, and rectal cancer surgery.

READ MORE: Reflecting on To Err is Human: 20 Years of Patient Safety Work

A higher percentage of hospitals met the surgical volume standard in 2019 than did in 2018, save for esophageal resection for cancer. In 2018, 2.6 percent of organizations hit the volume standard compared to 2.5 percent of hospitals that did in 2019.

However, the overall number of hospitals performing high-risk surgeries and hitting the volume thresholds is still less than ideal. The surgery type with the highest rate of organizations hitting the volume threshold was for bariatric surgery for weight loss, and even then, only 48 percent hit the threshold in 2019.

Next up was carotid endarterectomy, but only about 22 percent hit the threshold.

“The good news is we are seeing progress on surgical safety,” Leah Binder, the president and CEO of the Leapfrog Group, said in a statement. “The bad news is the vast majority of hospitals performing these high-risk procedures are not meeting clear volume standards for safety. This is very disturbing, as a mountain of studies show us that patient risk of complications or death is dramatically higher in low-volume operating rooms.”

“It’s time for hospitals and health systems to upgrade their surgical volume policies,” she added. “It will save lives.”

READ MORE: Providers Lack Tools to Boost Patient Safety, Achieve Zero Harm

These figures differed slightly for rural hospitals, with rural hospitals being less likely to hit the volume threshold than urban ones. However, when viewed as a proportion of hospitals offering a high-risk procedure and hitting the volume threshold, rural facilities fared better.

“To the credit of rural hospitals, most choose not to perform elective procedures for which they have inadequate patient volume,” the researchers said. “Hospitals that cannot perform a safe volume of procedures should follow the lead of the vast majority of rural hospitals and refer patients to safer options.”

In other words, rural hospitals are aware of their low volume and make a judicious decision not to offer the procedure. The most common high-risk surgery a rural hospital will opt into is a rectal cancer surgery, and even then, 73.2 percent are opting not to offer that surgery and refer patients to safer options.

The report also looked at protocol to ensure organizations only conduct a certain surgery or procedure when it is absolutely necessary. For cancer surgeries, hospitals must convene a multidisciplinary group to review cases, or they must have national accreditation from the American College of Surgeons.

For other high-risk surgeries, organizations must report on hospital policy for reviewing surgical necessity and preventive measures geared at preventing surgery overuse.

READ MORE: Hospitals Fall Short in Mitigating Serious Patient Safety Events

Hospitals are very likely to have adequate procedures in place. Over 70 percent of hospitals had adequate appropriateness procedures in place for cancer surgeries.

Fewer had them in place for other high-risk surgeries. Only 32.1 percent of hospitals had appropriateness procedures in place for open aortic procedures, while 43.2 percent had them in place for Mitral valve repair and replacement. Up to about 60 percent had appropriateness procedures in place for bariatric surgery for weight loss.

When stratifying for hospitals that meet the volume standard, Leapfrog found that hospitals commonly had adequate appropriateness standards. The number of hospitals offering surgery for cancers with appropriateness standards reached up into the low 90 percent for various procedures. For other high-risk surgeries, those numbers crept up to between 55 and 70 percent, depending on the procedure.

“It is critical that hospitals do not perform surgery when the procedure is not appropriate for the patient,” said Binder. “In addition to the increased potential for harm to patients, unnecessary surgeries contribute to the burden of overuse and excess expense in the U.S. health care system.”

This information is key for patient decision-making, the researchers said.

“While progress has been made, far too many hospitals are performing surgeries too infrequently to be deemed safe for patients,” the research team wrote. “Abundant evidence suggests that for certain procedures, patients can save their lives by choosing a hospital and a surgeon with adequate, ongoing experience performing that surgery and as well as a hospital that protects against unnecessary surgery.”

Many hospitals do opt into sharing this kind of data with the Leapfrog Group, but currently there are not requirements for hospitals to do so. This means patients can miss out on important information that could help them make a care access decision based on safety.

“Hospitals should implement policies to ensure safe volumes,” the report authors concluded. “If they cannot achieve a minimum volume for safety, they should not electively perform that procedure. Physicians should be willing to have a conversation with their patients about facility or surgeon alternatives that will improve the patient’s odds of a better outcome.”

Making the Journey Toward Culture Change in Healthcare

By Anita M. Yelton

Recognition is growing among healthcare leaders of the need for a culture change within their organizations. Moving from recognition to reality, however, is more difficult. The problem lies in the perception – or misperception – of what a culture change actually entails.

Culture change is not a program with a completion date, nor is it a quick fix. It is an ongoing journey – a journey that requires leaders to understand the current state of the organization, establish a clear vision, align behaviors and instill accountability.

Vision Versus Cultural Reality

Facing the need for a culture change, large corporations, not-for-profit institutions and faith-based organizations all say the same thing: “We’re different, we’re unique.” But actually, they share many common challenges and objectives. They all hire people with goals and ambitions, and with expectations as to how they will be treated, accepted, rewarded and promoted.

All too often, however, employee expectations and those of the organization are not fully aligned. This may be despite what the organization professes as its objectives. For employees, it is the culture of the organization that is the reality, not the mission statement that hangs on the wall.

Many senior executives are out of touch with the realities of their organization. Typically, leadership only discovers what is really going on when employee surveys come back with unexpected results. Such evidence dissolves complacency and compels action. In fact, this awareness is usually where the real journey toward culture change begins.

Achieving a culture change within an organization is an ongoing process involving deliberate, intentional steps that include:

  • Knowledge and Awareness
    • Honest assessment of the current culture
    • Development of baseline data
    • Vision of the desired state
  • Recognition and Reward
    • Demonstration of desired behaviors
    • Encouragement and reward for desired behaviors and outcomes
    • Determination of the decision-making process (who, what, when, how)
  • Communication
    • Development of an organizational communication strategy
    • Delivery of consistent messages throughout the organization
    • Frank discussion of tough issues that are frequently avoided
  • Systems, Structures and Linkage
    • Alignment of top leadership and performance management with the organization’s core values and issues
    • Determination of core competencies to support the desired culture
    • Delineation of goals – including “stretch” goals – for leadership
    • Linkage of behaviors, goals and achievements to compensation

Building a Framework for Change

Much can be learned from the successes and failures of organizations attempting to implement large-scale change initiatives. Such an examination reveals the value of using proven tools and techniques such as change acceleration process (for rapid decision-making), Work-Out (when the problem is known but the solution is not) and Lean Six Sigma (to streamline processes and reduce variation). These techniques can give employees a solid framework for addressing the issues they confront on a daily basis.

A simple equation to communicate this framework for sustainable change is Q x A = E, or the quality of the solution times the acceptance of that solution will equal the overall effectiveness. The individual components may be considered common sense, but they are not necessarily common practice.

In addition, it is important that this framework also include:

  • Clear management and leadership systems with 360-degree feedback
  • Skip-level meetings (meetings where leaders bypass their direct reports and speak to the next level of the organization)
  • A consistent operating calendar
  • A linkage between people, strategy and results.

The mere existence of an internal quality program cannot bring about a culture change. Leaders must focus on and balance all elements of the equation to begin the journey toward change and achieve sustainable results.

10 lessons‘A’ Side of Equation Is Essential

Employee acceptance is essential. Many organizations have declared their mission, written goals, produced vision statements and embraced a philosophy or set of values that fits their organization. These affirmations often include such lofty themes as empowerment, boundarylessness, customer focus, passion for excellence, accountability, quality mindset, employees as partners and so on. They are conveyed to all employees, reinforced in communication and are used to measure performance.

However, often there is no structure to support the realization of these organizational objectives. The employees frequently lack a genuine commitment to their company’s stated goals, mission, value statements and general philosophies because:

  1. They feel they have no input into the process.
  2. The statements are long, vague and do not relate directly to employees’ work.
  3. Goals and values are only communicated once a year and then not mentioned again.
  4. The statements are constantly being changed or revised.
  5. The leadership team is inconsistent in its actions and behaviors in support of the goals and values.

The failure to support goals and values could stem from such management practices as giving individual rewards and recognition versus team projects and rewards; identifying and grooming individuals with high potential for selected management positions while ignoring others who contribute to the team’s success; relying on employee comparisons and rankings that may be subjective instead of objective; discriminating within training, development, salary and promotions; and talking to instead of with employees. Other problems could include leadership actions that fail to “walk the talk,” an unwillingness on the part of management to accept feedback, a lack of upper management diversity and high turnover.

Such organizational shortcomings are often a matter of focus. In an effort to reduce cost, raise quality, boost productivity and surpass the competition in the marketplace, management may neglect such issues without realizing the impact it can have on employees, and thus the entire organization. Further, when confronted with the problems of stressed, overworked and burned-out employees, management often dismisses the complaints as trivial. The employees are sometimes labeled as “not being team players” or “not the stuff leaders are made of.”

The general feeling is that “healthcare is a caring profession” – an environment in which it is difficult to discuss performance issues. Tough conversations about people and performance often do not take place in order to avoid difficult or confrontational situations. Action items, decisions and accountability may never be discussed in meetings, where behavior is polite and politically correct. In fact, some of the most important conversations and decisions take place in the hallways after meetings. The fact to remember is that, wherever they take place, face-to-face communication is critical to establishing an honest, open dialogue across the organization.

Conclusion: A Path Toward Culture Change

Healthcare faces many challenges today in the quest to deliver the best and most cost-effective services for patients. One important challenge is to institute a culture change that enables staff, clinicians and managers to feel empowered and adequately equipped to address the problems which can be resolved only by altering their work environment. They need to know they can propose and implement viable solutions to real problems. Visionary healthcare organizations that are seeking to transform the way they deliver care must begin by finding a path toward a culture change.

The Economic Cost of Physician Burnout

25 Sep 2019|by Michael Blanding

Physician burnout costs the United States health care industry $4.6 billion a year, a number that brings a new spotlight to an age-old problem.

In a paper published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine this past June, a research team of seven co-authors, most of them doctors, concluded that the dollar losses were related to physician turnover and reduced clinical hours.

The research adds to previous work showing how physician stress generates negative clinical and organizational outcomes. No studies have previously been attempted to put a figure on burnout in the US on a national level. In part, that’s due to the difficulty of calculating the economic cost of all of the factors involved. For instance, some studies have associated burnout with an increase in medical errors, but calculating those costs are nearly impossible.

“Together with previous evidence that burnout can effectively be reduced with moderate levels of investment, these findings suggest substantial economic value for policy and organizational expenditures for burnout reduction programs for physicians,” the study states.

“Essentially it’s this feeling of being overwhelmed. You don’t feel like what you are doing is meaningful anymore.”

It’s well understood that doctors are constantly asked to do more with less. In addition to a demand for physicians that outstrips the supply, new laws around electronic record-keeping have increased the administrative burden on doctors as well.

“Physicians don’t sign up for the job to stare at a screen. They are doing this to provide care for people,” says one of the study’s co-authors, Joel Goh, a visiting scholar in the Technology & Operations Management Unit at Harvard Business School. “It creates a high level of dissonance for them.”

According to one study, more than half of all doctors in the US report feeling at least one symptom of burnout: emotional exhaustion, a feeling of detachment, or a diminished sense of personal accomplishment—twice the rate of the general working population.

“Essentially it’s this feeling of being overwhelmed,” says Goh, who is also an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. “You don’t feel like what you are doing is meaningful anymore.”

What’s the economic price of burnout?

Even though physician burnout is widespread, it’s difficult to put a price tag on the phenomenon in a way that medical institutions can understand. In past research, Goh focused on calculating the cost of workplace stress on medical costs in the US. That led Christine Sinsky, vice president of the American Medical Association, to contact Goh to ask if he could calculate the medical costs of stress experienced by doctors themselves. Sinsky is one of the authors of the latest paper.

“It was a great opportunity to explore this issue with thought leaders on the subject,” Goh says. “I could provide my technical skills on modeling, and they could provide their contextual knowledge.”

The researchers focused on one aspect of the problem they could measure: lost income due to reduced hours and turnover.

To do so, they used a 2014 survey of some 7,000 doctors that asked questions about burnout and short-term career plans to estimate the percentage of doctors planning to reduce their hours or leave their jobs due to burnout. They then correlated those numbers with the percentage of burnout experienced by doctors in different age groups and medical disciplines in order to estimate the overall effects of burnout on staffing nationwide.

They then created a formula to calculate the cost of lost hours—as well as the search, hiring, and training costs of filling vacant positions—to arrive at a total price tag for burnout from turnover.

A not insignificant number

Their final estimate, $4.6 billion annually, “is a decent amount that people should care about,” Goh says. Drilling down to an organization level, that number comes out to $7,600 per physician per year. Most of that cost, they determined, comes from turnover, which had five times the impact of reduced hours, due to all of the associated costs of filling a full-time equivalent position.

Of course, cost isn’t the only reason to deal with the issue of doctor burnout. “Organizations have an ethical imperative to take care of their employees,” Goh says. And doing so could help take care of patients as well by reducing medical errors.

Even so, the study shows that doing the right thing ethically can also make sense to the bottom line. “It’s not just going to be a waste of resources trying to deal with this problem,” Goh says. “Aside from all of the positive outcomes you generate, it’s probably a good financial return on investment as well.”

Goh and his colleagues further help organizations calculate that cost with a spreadsheet tool they developed that any organization can use to plug in their own figures and calculate their own potential costs of not dealing with burnout.

“In every other management decision, you try to have as complete a picture as possible,” he says. “This helps fill in some of those data points, not to supplant the ethical considerations, but to provide a more complete picture.”

For those ready to deal with the problem, says Goh, a range of interventions have been shown to be successful, including mindfulness exercises and stress-management training. To really make an impact, however, wider organizational changes are probably needed.

“One way to make a difference is by increasing the amount of administrative support doctors receive, so they are relieved of those burdens,” Goh says. “It may seem costly to hire that additional staff, but it will probably be beneficial in the long run.”

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