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  • Writer's pictureMark O'Neil

Why Changing Your Culture is Vital for Sustainable Healthcare

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

The Challenge of Changing Culture in Healthcare

Does your culture need to change to keep up with our evolving healthcare environment? Let's begin by changing a word… and using it meaningfully.

I believe an organization's culture can be somewhat amorphous and challenging to change. However, making a cultural shift can sometimes begin with one simple change.

Starting with Culture: Insights from Richard Pollack

Reading an article by Richard Pollack, President and CEO of the American Hospital Association, in the September/October 2022 issue of The Journal of Healthcare Management was a help in knowing where to begin.

In his article, Mr. Pollack reviews the environmental challenges healthcare professionals face. To be sure, they are complicated and deep, and they have gotten significantly worse in recent years. In fact, he states that without significant change, the healthcare system is on "an unsustainable path." I agree.

Pollack suggests that those that have a stake in the leadership of healthcare do three things:

  1. Start with you and your organization's culture.

  2. Make your voice heard. Be an advocate.

  3. Go beyond your Hospital's walls. Be an advocate for change.

Why Culture Matters More Than Strategy in Healthcare

My point in this article relates to number 1 above. Start with your organization's culture. Where can/should one start? Is it a symbolic exercise, or can it begin with symbolism and grow from there? We know that while strategy in any business is key, culture will usually trump strategy.

Let's start with a single word: employee. We use this word to define those who work for our organization.

With so much happening in healthcare, we have recognized more than ever that we are all in this together. If COVID proved anything, it proved that.

With staff turnover in healthcare, we find they are not necessarily in it with us. With many terms we use to refer to each other, we sometimes reinforce the idea that we are not all in this together. If we were, why would we refer to "bosses" and "employees," "managers," "supervisors," "subordinates," etc.? To be sure, we don't intend to create a hierarchical distinction, but I argue that we do.

A sense of inclusion, emotional connection, engagement, and meaningful participation is not only important but essential to individual staff members bonding with their teammates and organization. The term colleague captures the spirit of commonality. However, the term alone does not make it happen unless behavior gives life to the concept.

The Power of a Single Word: "Colleague"

An early and longtime mentor of mine is a guy named Jerry Vasile. At a very young age, he was a CEO at the University of Rochester's Strong Memorial Hospital. He used the word colleague often, in a broader context than an academic one. When he and I moved out of the academic environment and went on to United Health Services in Binghamton, NY, he came to look at anyone, from the housekeeper to the Chief of Staff as a colleague.

Later, as I went on to the Mercy Health System of Southeast Pennsylvania, I introduced the concept within Mercy Health System. Our parent corporation also picked it up, and soon many of the 46,000 "employee" organizations became known as colleagues. Still later, I introduced the concept within the for-profit Tenet-owned hospitals in and near Hilton Head, SC.

Why is a small item like this more important now than it was a few years ago? Well, according to many of the clients that I coach today, there is a yearning for stability by our leaders, but perhaps not so by those that we lead. Yes, financial consideration is important, but it is no longer enough.

The term colleague captures the spirit of commonality. However, this word alone is insufficient unless actual behavior(s) give life to the term.

As my current Executive Coaching clients can attest, they are searching for answers that have become much more complicated than they were a few short years ago. Many argue that it must begin with a complete rebuilding of the system. This is probably true, but as we attempt to do that, we must start changing our culture. In this, words like colleague are essential.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, the healthcare industry faces significant environmental challenges that require substantial change to be sustainable. While rebuilding the system may be necessary, it's essential to start changing the culture of healthcare organizations. The use of language and how we refer to each other plays a vital role in creating an inclusive, connected, and engaged workforce necessary for sustainable healthcare.

Words like "colleague" can help foster a sense of commonality and inclusion, but actual behaviors must give life to the term. Creating the right culture may be challenging, but it's necessary for the industry's sustainability.

Let's look at the cultural issue in the next few blog posts. I'm interested in your comments. Please post them in the comments section.

Creating the right culture can be challenging. If you need help making the right organizational culture, consider seeking help from an executive coach. I can help. Contact me to schedule a complimentary call today.

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