Hospital Leadership, Strategy, and Culture in the Age of Health Care Reform

With just eleven months to go before the Value-Based Purchasing component of the Affordable Care Act is scheduled to go into effect, it is an auspicious time to consider how health care providers, and hospitals specifically, plan to successfully navigate the adaptive change to come.  The delivery of health care is unique, complex, and currently fragmented.  Over the past thirty years, no other industry has experienced such a massive infusion of technological advances while at the same time functioning within a culture that has slowly and methodically evolved over the past century.  The evolutionary pace of health care culture is about to be shocked into an entirely new reality.  One that will inevitably require health care leadership to adopt a new, innovative perspective as to the delivery of their services.

First, a bit on the details of the coming changes.  The concept of Value-Based Purchasing is that the buyers of health care services (i.e. Medicare, Medicaid, and following the government’s lead, private insurers) should hold the providers of health care services accountable for both cost and quality of care.  While this may sound practical, pragmatic, and sensible, it effectively shifts the entire reimbursement landscape from diagnosis/procedure driven compensation to one that includes quality measures in five key areas of patient care.  To support and drive this unprecedented change, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is also incentivizing the voluntary formation of Accountable Care Organizations to reward providers that, through coordination, collaboration, and communication, cost-effectively deliver optimum patient outcomes throughout the continuum of the health care delivery system.

The proposed reimbursement system would hold providers accountable for both cost and quality of care from three days prior to hospital admittance to ninety days post hospital discharge.  To get an idea of the complexity of variables, in terms of patient handoffs to the next responsible party in the continuum of care, please take a look at Figure 1.  Each circle represents a functional unit within the current health care system.  A unit that functions and communicates both internally and externally with teams of professionals focused on optimizing care.  With each handoff and with each individual in each team, variables of care and communication are introduced to the system.

Figure 1. Click to Enlarge

Historically, quality systems from other industries (i.e. Six Sigma, Total Quality Management) have focused on wringing out the potential for variability within their value creation process.  The fewer variables that can effect consistency, the greater the quality of outcomes.  While this approach has proven effective in manufacturing industries, health care presents a collection of challenges that go well beyond such controlled environments.  Health care also introduces the single most unpredictable variable of them all; the individual patient.

Another critical factor that cannot be ignored is the highly charged emotional landscape in which health care is delivered.  The implications of failure go well beyond missing a quarterly sales quota or a monthly shipping target, and clinicians carry this heavy, emotional burden of responsibility with them, day-in and day-out.  Add to this the chronic nursing shortage (which has been exacerbated by layoffs during the recession), the anxiety that comes with the ambiguity of unprecedented change, the layering of one new technology over another (which creates more information and the need for more monitoring), and an industry culture that has deep roots in a bygone era and the challenge before us comes into greater focus.

Which brings us to the question; what approach should leadership adopt in order to successfully migrate the delivery system through the inflection point where quality of care and cost containment intersect?  How will this collection of independent contractors and institutions coordinate care and meet the new quality metrics proposed by HHS?  The fact of the matter is, health care is the most human of our national industries. The shifting demographic needs and economic constraints of our society required change.  Hopefully this change will prompt leadership to revisit how they choose to engage and integrate the human element within the system.  The scope of change demands no less.

In contemplating this approach, a canvasing of the peer-reviewed research into both quality of care and cost containment issues points to a possible solution; the cultivation of emotional intelligence in health care workers.  After reviewing more than three dozen published studies, all of which confirmed the positive impact cultivating emotional intelligence has in clinical settings, I believe contemplating this approach warrants further exploration.

Emotional intelligence is a skill as much as an attribute.  It is comprised by a set of competencies in Self-Awareness, Self Management, Social Awareness, and Relationship Management, all leading to Self Mastery.  Fortunately, these are skills that can be developed and enhanced over the course of one’s lifetime.

Keeping the continuum of care patient flow chart in mind (Figure 1), let’s examine how emotional intelligence factors into the proposed quality measures the Department of Health and Human Services will be using come October, 2012:

1.)  Patient/Caregiver Experience of Care – This factor really comes down to a patient’s perception of care.  Perceptions of care are heavily shaded by emotions.  Patients consistently rate less skilled surgeons that have a greater bedside manner as better than maestro surgeons that lack, or choose not to display, these softer skills.  Additional research into why people sue over malpractice demonstrates people don’t sue over a medical mistake in and of itself.  People sue because of how they felt they were treated after the error occurred.  There’s a difference between curing an illness and healing a patient and that difference lies in the expression of authentic empathy through healthy, professional boundaries.

This is a key driver in patient decision-making as well.  Patients tend to choose a hospital based upon one or two criteria; the recommendation of their primary care physician (with whom they have an established relationship) and/or upon the recommendations from family members or friends that have experienced care in a particular hospital.  A quick look into the field of Applied Behavioral Economics supports this finding.  Economic decision making is 70% emotionally driven with the remaining 30% based in rational thought.  In many instances, it would appear that hospital marketing doesn’t seem to reflect an understanding of this phenomena.  Waiting room times in Emergency Rooms have little to do with why patients choose a hospital, yet we see billboards everywhere that have the actual E.R. wait times electronically flashing along the roadside.

A patient’s experience of care can be highly impacted at the handoff points within the continuum of care.  Any new model of care will require exceptional cross-organizational communications to emerge.  This requires a high level of engagement and commitment to the new vision at every patient touch-point.

This metric also addresses the caregivers’ experience of care.  This speaks largely to the experience of nurses that are delivering that care.  The research related to the impact of cultivating emotional intelligence in nurses clearly demonstrates a reduction in stress, improved communication skills, improved leadership and retention, the ability to quickly connect and engage patients, as well as a reduction in nurse burnout (which leads to turnover and additional stress amongst the remaining staff).

2.)  Care Co-ordination – Again, this will require optimal engagement and pro-active communication intra-organizationally and cross-organizationally.  Each handoff introduces opportunities for variable care to emerge that must be seamlessly co-ordinated.  Poor co-ordination also introduces the risk of eroding the quality of the patient’s experience.

3.)  Patient Safety – Research shows that the cultivation of Emotional Intelligence competencies in nursing contributes to positive patient outcomes, lowers the risk of adverse events, lowers costs at discharge, and reduces medication errors, all while lowering nurse stress, burnout, and turnover.  Each time a nurse resigns it adds to the nursing shortage on the floor, requires additional hours from other nurses, and costs the hospital approximately $64,000, on average, to backfill the open position.  Improving how an institution cares for its nurses improves the level of patient care and safety as well.

4.)  Preventive Health – Elevating Self-Awareness and Social Awareness in clinicians helps them quickly connect and effectively communicate with patients.  Subtle, non-verbal cues become more readily apparent, helping clinicians understand the fears and emotions of their patients.  Self Management and Relationship Management helps clinicians communicate appropriately and supports the expression of authentic empathy through healthy, professional boundaries.  All of these factors come into play when speaking with patients about lifestyle choices, course of treatment, and preventive health care.

5.)  At-Risk Population/Frail Elderly Health – Like preventive health, being measured on the care of the community’s at-risk population and elderly will require a fresh, innovative approach to community outreach and pro-active communication.  These are not populations that can be easily reached via Facebook or Twitter.  This requires human contact and deep engagement with each population, both of which are supported through the development of a mindful approach (i.e. emotionally intelligent) to the challenges at hand.

It will be interesting to see how reform unfolds and how leadership within the health care delivery system chooses to respond to the challenges that lie ahead.  Systems and hospitals that choose to take an honest, evidence-based look at how they choose to lead, how they create and execute strategy, and the organizational culture they’re cultivating will be well served in preparing to successfully navigate this unprecedented change.

© 2011, Terry Murray.

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Filed under Health Care, Leadership Development, Organizational Culture

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