Knowledge Management in Healthcare: It’s More Important Than You Realize

Solving problems and making optimal decisions in healthcare is heavily dependent on access to knowledge. In today’s increasingly complex environment, it is rapidly becoming essential for healthcare organizations to effectively manage both internal knowledge and externally generated knowledge in order to provide the best possible healthcare, achieve operational excellence, and foster innovation. A well-organized and effective strategy for knowledge management in healthcare can help organizations achieve these goals.

Established as a discipline in 1991, knowledge management is generally defined as the process of capturing, developing, sharing, and effectively using knowledge. Knowledge management efforts typically focus on strategic objectives such as improved performance, competitive advantage, innovation, the sharing of lessons learned, integration, and continuous improvement.

In other industries, large organizations, public institutions, and non-profit organizations have resources dedicated to internal knowledge management efforts. However, few healthcare organizations have a knowledge management strategy or an intentional approach to supporting the knowledge management process. This is beginning to change.

Three Reasons Why Knowledge Management Is Important

There are three key reasons why actively managing knowledge is important to success.

  • It facilitates decision-making capabilities. When people in an organization experience information overload or lack the knowledge needed for decision-making, clinicians and managers can be handicapped. Putting knowledge management systems in place can facilitate the flow of information and result in better, more-informed decisions.
  • It builds learning organizations by making learning routine. In his book, Learning in Action: A Guide to Putting the Learning Organization to Work, David Garvin noted, “to move ahead, one must often first look behind.” This implies the need to create a data-driven continuous-learning environment that supports organizational learning based on experience. In his well-known book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter Senge describes a learning organization as an organization “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.” Organizational research over the past two decades has revealed three broad factors that are essential for organizational learning and adaptability: a supportive learning environment, concrete learning processes and practices, and leadership behavior that provides reinforcement.The characteristics of a learning organization are shown in the diagram. We can all continuously assess our successes and our failures as we strive to continuously improve. This creates a culture that learns from experience based on a data-driven assessment of performance and outcomes. Learning from experience builds knowledge that can then be used to improve care and streamline operations over time.

learning organization

  • Finally, knowledge management stimulates cultural change and innovation. Actively managing knowledge encourages the free flow of ideas and an innovative culture. An innovative culture begins with accepting that the world really is changing and being open to doing things differently. It starts with the right mindset. The unexpected must be expected. This mindset must be fostered by leadership at the top of the organization and ultimately needs to permeate every level of the organization. It must become part of the beliefs, expectations, and purpose throughout an organization. In the increasingly complex healthcare environment, an effective knowledge management program can help clinicians and operational managers embrace change and encourage the ideas and insights that often lead to innovation.

Using IT Systems to Enable Knowledge Management in Healthcare

In a report published in 2012 entitled “Enabling Health Care Decision-making Through Clinical Decision Support and Knowledge Management,” the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) cited strong evidence that clinical decision support systems and knowledge management IT systems can be effective in improving health care process measures across diverse settings using both commercially and locally developed systems. It is likely that these systems will become a key part of the IT infrastructure of all healthcare organizations over the next few years.

With the widespread adoption of EHRs, the availability of advanced analytical tools, and an emphasis on value production, data-driven healthcare will dominate the next decade. As this transformation unfolds, the effective management of knowledge will become an essential skill that all healthcare providers will need to master.

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