In the fast-moving world of healthcare, tremendous change is occurring each second, both inside and outside of organizations. How should leaders communicate change to stakeholders? How should they deliver the message? This issue of Frontiers of Health Services Management addresses those questions—and many others—by presenting leadership perspectives on communications planning and strategies, including the appropriate channels and skills that are necessary to help messages cut through modern-day noise.
Communication methods are evolving as technology transforms the ways people want to receive information. In today’s digital world, traditional forms of communication compete with an expanding array of options. New forms of communication provide effective opportunities to reach people quickly, and yet with greater speed comes more risk. Messages can now be misinterpreted more easily, and they may lack the essential power that the human touch can bring. Before organizations can engage with multiple generations of employees and consumers, they must develop communication strategies that are both effective and efficient. Information must be articulated and disseminated clearly and consistently at the right time, by the right people, and through the right medium to support quality, safety, and cost improvements.
Communication is a critical skill for healthcare leaders to hone because they need to establish a collaborative voice in the organization as well as in the community. Building relationships and partnerships is absolutely necessary in a value-based environment, and that reality calls for the most appropriate communication methods. When messages are not received as intended, the potential for engagement is lost. If information is not communicated and shared in a timely manner, the consequences—errors, rumors, stress, and conflict—can be severe. In facing healthcare’s complexities, clinical, financial, and administrative leaders all must be on the same page and be transparent in their messaging across the enterprise. Many times, leaders believe that important information has been received merely because it has been sent. Unfortunately, these leaders often fail to truly communicate when they miss their marks in content, audience, timing, and medium. Sometimes they simply do not listen and miss opportunities to resolve issues and avoid a potential crisis.
In developing communication strategies, leaders must first assess any processes, structures, and cultural traits of an organization that can impede or change the flow of information. Does the organization promote transparency in its mission, vision, and values? Is there a shift in responsibilities as healthcare executives become increasingly involved in day-to-day communications with stakeholders? Collaborative team communication to facilitate information delivery is a basic element in the planning process. Creating and using tools to improve communication and prevent errors is another action step in the plan. As the leaders in this issue of Frontiers make clear, communication is the life force of any organization and requires the full attention of all executives and clinicians.
In her feature article, Lynne Cunningham, FACHE, of Huron’s Studer Group, reviews evidence-based strategies for effective communication. They can be summarized as setting expectations, establishing accountability and measuring results, engaging with employees to collect feedback and provide recognition, and cascading and synchronizing a communications plan. Cunningham concludes, “When setting goals, objectives, and expectations for your organization, remember that communication needs to be a strategic priority. Without effective communication, it can be difficult to cascade messages, effect real change, and see desired results.”
Feature article author Marie Judd, FACHE, emphasizes the importance of effective and efficient communication in advancing the Quadruple Aim of enhancing the person/patient experience, improving population health, reducing costs, and improving the work life of healthcare providers. She also discusses several models, tools, and action steps implemented by Ascension both locally and nationally. Judd describes what healthcare communication looks like from the perspectives of care teams, servant leaders, an integrated system, a learning organization, and a transformative system. “Communication in healthcare takes many forms. Essentially, it is the glue that holds complex systems and structures together and facilitates the human-to-human connections that define how we deliver care,” she writes.
In his commentary, Bob Dent, FACHE, discusses how toxic emotional behaviors lead to poor communication and outcomes and emphasizes the importance of a culture of ownership in a positive workplace environment. He reviews communication structures and processes that Midland Memorial Hospital uses to improve working relationships and the patient experience, including weekly messages from the CEO to employees, huddles, leadership rounds, performance check-ins, social media, and professional governance.
Commentator Lamont M. Yoder, FACHE, shares Banner Health’s wide-ranging initiative to define and share its purpose. “[I]nspiring a workforce and aligning it with the true north of its purpose distinguishes an organization from the competition,” Yoder writes. He discusses Banner’s cultural transformation; the power of inspiring and engaging team members and their leaders; and an evidence-based communication structure, process, and plan. Purpose, engagement, and effective communications can establish organizations as places “where people want to come to work and want to come for care,” Yoder points out.
In his commentary, David A. Stark, FACHE, focuses on four ways he ensures effective communication practices at UnityPoint Health–Des Moines: leadership communication, real transparency, multiple communication channels, and esprit de corps. He strongly believes that communication—which must “start at the top, with the senior leadership team”—is the key to patient and team member satisfaction, and he shares a critical lesson for healthcare leaders: “the importance of effective, personalized communication with all team members in the organization.”