Communication in Healthcare Culture: Eight Steps to Uphold Outcomes Improvement

November 24, 2017

Article Summary

Healthcare leaders looking to establish and sustain a culture of large-scale outcomes improvement must communicate their health system’s values, beliefs, and norms throughout the entire organization. Effective communication spreads understanding of outcomes improvement, ensuring broad engagement and ongoing progress toward shared goals.

communication in healthcare

Communication is critical for shaping an organizational culture that supports large-scale transformation and performance improvement. With effective communication, the leadership team affirms for the entire organization the value of its outcomes improvement strategy, engages team members at every level, and drives progress towards clinical, operational, and financial goals.

This article’s eight-step communication strategy outlines a best practice approach to facilitating change and achieving meaningful outcomes improvements.

Communication in Healthcare: Elements that Shape a Culture of Improvement

The content of an organization’s communication depends on the needs of its various audiences, its goals, and the changing circumstances of its outcomes improvement journey. The leadership team’s communication should include several key elements:

  • A clear and compelling vision: The vision describes the organization’s future and why it’s on a particular path. Vision also explains how outcomes improvement will transform daily work and healthcare delivery overall, and how all team members will benefit from the changes.
  • Expectations for improvement: Expectations are the targets for improvement and the motivation behind them. Organizations need to set clear and specific goals and describe precisely how and when they’ll measure progress.
  • Support for transparency and ongoing learning: Organizations need to demonstrate that all team members can safely bring up a challenge or failure and do so without fear of repercussions.
  • Authority and accountability: Who will lead the charge? The leadership team explains how it will grant authority and responsibility, and what kinds of support all team members must provide.
  • Plans, progress, and performance: As improvement work proceeds, the leadership team communicates current status, next steps, lessons learned, and adjustments. Even after achieving initial goals, leadership continually monitors and communicates to ensure the organization is sustaining the gains. Leadership shares all data (good and bad) to paint an objective picture and help reinforce a data-driven culture.
  • Successes: The leadership team highlights all successes, including the small wins. Doing so honors the work that’s been done, shows gratitude to the people who do it, and motivates the whole organization.

Eight Steps to Communicating Effectively in an Improvement Culture

Once the leadership team has defined what it will communicate, based on the essential elements above, it can establish a successful outcomes improvement communication strategy by following these eight steps:

  1. Include a communications specialist on the outcomes improvement leadership team.

The right communication specialist will have substantial experience developing campaigns and the authority to deploy resources (people and funds) for ongoing support. The communication specialist will join the outcomes improvement leadership team, a multidisciplinary group of innovators and early adopters who champion key transformation initiatives.

  1.  Analyze the stakeholders early and often.

The analysis of stakeholders should be an ongoing component of the leadership strategy. This analysis can begin as soon as leadership forms the highest-level goal for the organization. Stakeholder analysis involves identifying who will be affected by the change(s) and what their needs and influence could mean for the initiative’s success. Leadership will consider what these stakeholders need to do and know to contribute, and then craft a communication plan around those needs.

  1. Craft the central message around shared values.

Most people care about doing a good job and helping patients. For example, a campaign like

The IHI’s 100,000 Lives Campaign frames quality and patient safety efforts to help people achieve something meaningful (in this case, saving lives). Leadership aligns stories, branding, and other communication with this central message, with the goal of creating a narrative that team members can relate to and contribute to on a practical and emotional level.

  1. Be a constant champion.

For members of the leadership team, every meeting, conference call, elevator chat, and clinic visit is a chance to reinforce a culture of improvement. Leaders can ask, listen, share relentlessly, and acknowledge their own learning while promoting the progress.

  1. Commit to regular times and mechanisms for communication.

In the absence of communication, people will create their own stories. Leaders must get ahead of—and stay on top of—the spin cycle by establishing means for frequent communication:

  • Start every meeting with an improvement story.
  • Send a monthly email or newsletter that highlights improvement efforts.
  • Provide quarterly updates with performance data, lessons learned, and progress.
  1. Make sure communication flows both ways.

To support a culture of curiosity, trust, and continuous improvement, the leadership team solicits feedback and uses it to reflect publicly on what’s working and what can be done differently to get better results. This helps an organization demonstrate that it doesn’t play the blame game if something needs to be improved—that it’s safe for team members to give feedback, ask questions, and think creatively about solutions.

  1. Be transparent.

The leadership team wants organizational efforts to be visible; this transparency reinforces improvement as a way of life for the organization. But showing the work often means sharing losses, along with wins. Early on, leadership establishes principles for communicating about failures, poor performance, errors, oversights, lessons learned, etc. The organization strives to be as transparent as possible in its current culture and shares data in a way that demonstrates (and cultivates) a willingness to learn and grow.

  1. Be creative.

Guided by the communications specialist, the leadership team considers a variety of communication channels and formats. Successful, comprehensive communication strategies include a variety of channels:

  • Banners and screen savers.
  • FAQs, newsletters, and quarterly reports.
  • Podcasts, blogs, and web articles.
  • Photo gallery highlighting staff contributions.
  • YouTube channel featuring relevant stories and interviews.
  • Posted case studies showing how staff in various areas are contributing to shared goals.
  • Industry awards, press releases, and radio spots.
  • Town halls, grand rounds, and study days dedicated to showcasing efforts in different areas.

Communicate Effectively to Govern Successfully

Organizations can only achieve true, sustainable outcomes improvement when all team members comprehensively understand why the organization wants to change and how it plans to accomplish that change. For an initiative to succeed, improvement planning and knowledge can’t remain siloed within the leadership team; instead, it must spread throughout the organization. The eight-step communication plan for communication that facilitates a culture of improvement ensures engagement, shared understanding, alignment, and focus around systemwide healthcare transformation.

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