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Communication Connects Team Members to Each Other and Their Organization

Stark, David A. FACHE

Frontiers of Health Services Management: Fall 2019 - Volume 36 - Issue 1 - p 36–39
doi: 10.1097/HAP.0000000000000064

David A. Stark, FACHE, is president and CEO of UnityPoint Health–Des Moines in Des Moines, Iowa.

The author declares no conflicts of interest.

I have been a member of the UnityPoint Health–Des Moines team for more than 23 years and have seen us grow from three hospitals to a large, multistate system. Today I serve the Des Moines, Iowa, region as the affiliate’s president and CEO, and I strongly believe that communication is the key to patient and team member satisfaction. Throughout my career, I have been passionate about being transparent and accessible because I feel it helps me be more authentic to our team members and those we serve.

The feature articles by Lynne Cunningham and Marie Judd in this issue of Frontiers of Health Services Management reinforce one of the most significant lessons I have learned from mentors and other leaders and as I have grown in leadership positions: the importance of effective, personalized communication with all team members in the organization. The fact that this issue of Frontiers is dedicated to the topic of communication strategies further demonstrates how critical it is for us as healthcare leaders to be proactive and strategic in our communication.

With more than 8,700 employees, 550 providers, and 970 volunteers, UnityPoint Health–Des Moines is the largest affiliate of the UnityPoint Health system. We provide care through five hospitals, nearly a hundred clinics, and a cancer center, in addition to home care and hospice services. We also collaborate with six community network hospitals to provide healthcare services in small communities throughout central Iowa. We face challenges every day in communicating with team members who have different levels of education, come from different cultural backgrounds, are in different stages of life, and work 24/7 in dispersed locations. Like many other healthcare organizations, we are constantly looking for effective and creative ways to share strategic messages and updates from throughout the health system.

As Cunningham and Judd point out, the best possible patient experience starts with informed and engaged employees. Healthcare is changing at a rapid pace, and so is how we deliver that care. These changes affect our providers and employees, so it is important to communicate with them in a way that they understand so that they can embrace all that is going on.

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Communication and Engagement

To ensure effective communication and engagement with more than 10,000 providers, employees, and volunteers, I focus on four key areas: leadership communication, real transparency, multiple channels, and esprit de corps.

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Leadership Communication

Communication begins at the top. As president and CEO of UnityPoint Health–Des Moines, I set the overarching tone and expectation for how the organization’s leaders communicate with each other and with our team members. I start by addressing the “why” for all that I do. Leaders frequently do not cover this basic point, but it can be essential to the successful implementation of an initiative. When presenting information to our management team, I always make a conscious effort to answer their “why” questions so that they know and understand the reasons for a decision or change. I also apply this practice during employee open forums and rounding, as everyone must understand why we are doing things. Team members rely on their managers and supervisors for most of their information, so it is imperative that leaders understand the why and communicate it effectively.

To give managers the information they need, UnityPoint Health–Des Moines has implemented a template for messages from management. The easy-to-read document is set up in three sections: know, do, and share. This format enables managers to see quickly and easily the information they need to know and understand. Then it tells them what they need to do with the information, and finally what we want them to share with their team members. Managers like to know exactly what is expected of them, and they have a lot on their plates. The message template helps them communicate efficiently. All managers share the information the same way so that all team members get the same message.

The Making Mondays Matter broadcast e-mail is another important leadership communication tool at UnityPoint Health–Des Moines. This message appears in all leaders’ inboxes on Monday morning to get them ready for the week ahead. The organizational development team creates the content to emphasize inspirational and educational messages. Topics have included “Managing Up: The Patient and Employee Experience,” “Managing Stretched Workers,” and “Creating Rules of Engagement.” The topics reflect what the leaders are currently facing, and the e-mail provides them with examples and strategies for engaging their team members.

I also set aside time for one-on-one meetings with each leadership team member. It is important to dedicate time to talk about what is happening right now and to solve problems in real time. These meetings focus on the big picture and where we are going, so the standard agenda covers our system’s four strategic priorities: care experience, care delivery, care financing, and care innovation. This approach allows us to take care of today’s business while working on where we are going and keeping sight of the long-term strategy. In addition, I can answer questions about strategy and clarify significant points so that leaders can communicate more effectively with their direct reports.

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Real Transparency

It is important to communicate the good, the bad, and the ugly consistently. I believe we need to be transparent at all times so that leaders and their team members learn about things—good and bad—from the executive office first, before they see it on social media or in the local news. This truly supports a culture of trust in the organization. As Cunningham and Judd mention in their feature articles, the information must be made real by covering the impacts to a unit or department and the individuals who work in it.

In addition, all team members must know how their leaders measure and report organizational performance, and they must understand how they drive that work every day. In 2019, UnityPoint Health–Des Moines held a contest in which each department designed a space for a creative display of organizational metrics. The contest was an engaging way for team members to learn about the importance of measuring success and identifying areas for improvement in their departments.

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Multiple Channels

We live in a world where we can get news 24/7, and our team members expect the same level of information sharing at work. At UnityPoint Health–Des Moines, we use multiple channels to reach our team members so that they can access information or the latest news at their convenience. Communication channels include the Hub (our intranet), our weekly employee newsletter (sent electronically and posted on the Hub), open forums, employee rounding, e-mails (for management and all team members), daily huddles, and bimonthly management team meetings (each with a corresponding SharePoint site for information and documents). In addition, various employee committees (e.g., employee engagement, supervisor forum) allow groups to gather and share information through our communication channels, with committee members serving as ambassadors to other team members.

Our communication channels also enable team members to ask questions or seek clarification from leadership, including me as CEO. Whether it is at management team meetings or open forums, during rounds, in the employee newsletter, or on the Hub, we encourage team members to ask questions. We then provide answers openly and honestly.

One of my favorite communication channels is our Facebook page. This closed group is for all team members across UnityPoint Health. It has more than 12,000 followers—just a little less than half of all employees. It is fun to see and respond to posts from across the system—from Peoria, Illinois, to Sioux City, Iowa—about team members being recognized and new programs being launched. The page has helped the health system move to more of a one-team mentality.

I also leverage UnityPoint Health–Des Moines’s local social media accounts and engage with the posts that our marketing communications team shares on a regular basis. By liking, sharing, and commenting, I show team members that I am engaged and proud of their work. I also have my own Twitter account (@StarkDavid1462), where I share industry news and tweet about day-to-day activities such as employee recognition, interesting meetings, and events occurring in our organization.

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Esprit de Corps

Creating a common spirit among all team members inspires enthusiasm for and a commitment to our organization. This esprit de corps is more important than ever, as we in healthcare face numerous challenges and changes. I agree with Cunningham and Judd about the positive impact of rounding. We choose to work in healthcare because we care about others and want to make a difference. For all of us, it is a calling, and I can see that clearly as I round on the floors.

We foster esprit de corps through a common values system, recognition, and celebrations. Several years ago, UnityPoint Health rolled out a set of values for the entire system. Our FOCUS values—Foster Unity, Own the Moment, Champion Excellence, UnityPoint Health, and Seize Opportunities—created a platform for team members to embrace and implement in their daily lives. These values were well received because team members from all our regions gathered each affiliate’s current values, brought them together, and developed a shared vision for the future. We embed FOCUS values in all we do, whether caring for patients and families, working with each other, or going about our lives in the community.

We also have developed several recognition programs at UnityPoint Health–Des Moines. One of the top themes from a recent employee survey centered on how our team members were inspired by celebrating (and being celebrated for) their amazing work, so we created a new, on-the-spot recognition for others called FOCUS Gratitude cards. These cards are placed conveniently throughout the campus. Team members can take one, identify a FOCUS value they have witnessed, and write a small note of recognition before handing it to a deserving team member.

These efforts are appreciated, as evidenced by the results from a recent employee engagement survey that surpassed industry standards:

  • 82 percent of employees are extremely satisfied with UnityPoint Health as a place to work.
  • 90 percent are proud to work for UnityPoint Health.
  • 81 percent believe UnityPoint Health has a promising future, and they are excited to be a part of it.

I am extremely proud of these numbers, but we continue to work on improving our scores with each survey. I believe we can attribute this success to our emphasis on communication at the managerial level and giving leaders the tools they need to connect with their team members.

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Communication must start at the top—with the senior leadership team. We must lead by example with open and honest communication, whether we are meeting one-on-one with leadership team members, rounding on the floors, or answering questions at employee forums.

Communication does not just happen. It is not easy. Making sure you are leveraging the channels available to you to communicate to team members where they are takes time and effort. By making communication a priority at UnityPoint Health–Des Moines, we are on our way to creating a culture where team members feel they are connected and have the information they need to do their jobs and take care of patients, families, other team members, and themselves.

© 2019 Foundation of the American College of Healthcare Executives