Dignity Health, America’s fifth largest healthcare system, publicly positions its organization as providing “humankindness.” Its website includes references to research on the health benefits of human connection and promises a patient experience where physicians and staff connect with patients and their loved ones. Lloyd Dean, Dignity Health’s president and CEO, is an uber-connector who walks the talk. Since arriving at Dignity Health in 2000 (then Catholic Healthcare West) when it was losing a million dollars a day, Dean and the Dignity Health leadership team have led the healthcare system to record revenue and financial strength while continuing to improve patient quality of care.
The impact of connection and engagement on organizational performance is borne out in various studies. Compared to organizations with connection/engagement scores in the bottom quartile, organizations with top quartile scores experience two-and-a-half to four-and-a half times greater revenue growth, according to research from the Hay Group. In addition, organizations in the top quarter had 21 percent greater productivity, 22 percent greater profitability, 10 percent higher customer service metrics, 41 percent fewer quality defects, and 37 percent lower absenteeism than organizations in the bottom quartile, according to Gallup research.
Engagement's Effect on Key Performance Indicators
Positioning a healthcare organization to provide human connection—a bond based on shared identity, empathy, and understanding that moves individuals toward group-centered membership—is relevant to patient outcomes and resonates with healthcare consumers. The feeling of connection among the healthcare professionals that extends outward to patients and their families helps reduce the stress and anxiety that accompany illness.
The chronic stress that many healthcare workers, patients, and their families experience takes its toll. Research shows that chronic stress damages telomeres, the caps at the end of chromosomes, by shortening them. This damage weakens the immune system and promotes rapid aging. Conversations in which participants experience mutual empathy and emotional support release telomerase, an enzyme that heals damaged telomeres. A culture that fosters connection can play a role in healing the corrosive effects of stress.
Dignity Health is not the only healthcare organization creating cultures of connection that benefit the people who work in healthcare and their patients. The Mayo Clinic’s “Mayo Model of Care” is based on a team-oriented approach that promotes connection.
My wife, Katie, and I would add Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to the list as well. Katie was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 2004, a year after being treated for breast cancer. While she was in the midst of six rounds of chemotherapy at our local hospital that spring, we chose to go to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City for a second opinion on her treatment plan. I’ll never forget our first visit. As we came within eyesight of the building’s entrance a doorman named Nick Medley locked his eyes on Katie and greeted her like a returning friend.
Nick was intentionally reaching out to connect with Katie and others whom he recognized were cancer patients. The security and administrative people we encountered were friendly and helpful, and our oncologist was informative, upbeat, and optimistic. I already knew that Sloan Kettering was among the best at treating ovarian cancer and by the end of our visit, I also knew they cared. The feeling of connection I had to people we met that day made me more optimistic about Katie’s prognosis.
Katie went on to do further surgery and chemotherapy at Sloan Kettering. Earlier this year, we celebrated her eleventh year of being in remission from ovarian cancer. Research supports that the medical care she received helped her survive. In addition, research has established that the psychosocial support that came from feeling connected with our family, friends, and the healthcare workers we interacted with also helped Katie survive.
Organizations with greater human connection experience five benefits that add up to a powerful source of competitive advantage.
Certain collective beliefs and behaviors promote this bond of connection among people. There are three distinct elements in a culture of connection that can be summarized as the 3Vs: vision, value, and voice.
Communicate an inspiringvision. Vision exists when people in an organization are motivated by the mission, united by values, and proud of the organization’s reputation. The MD Anderson Cancer Center has a strong vision summarized in the phrase “making cancer history” that appears as part of its logo. MD Anderson has a reputation for being one of the leading cancer research centers in the world. Its vision provides an enormous source of pride to its employees and it helps connect them.
Vision also includes an organization’s values—its core beliefs about the ways it goes about doing its work and, by inference, the actions it deems as unacceptable. For example, many healthcare organizations embrace the values of excellence, integrity, respect, and caring and compassion for patients and their families. Leaders are responsible for making these values clear. They do this by articulating them in word and deed. Because vision leaks as people get caught up in the day-to-day tasks and lose sight of it, leaders must regularly communicate the vision.
Value people. Value is the heart of a culture of connection. Value exists when everyone in the organization understands the needs of people, appreciates their positive, unique contributions, and helps them achieve their potential. People working in a culture of connection value others as human beings and treat them as such rather than being indifferent to them or treating them as means to an end.
For example, Herbert Pardes, MD, is a leader who promoted value in a healthcare culture. When he was president and CEO of the not-for-profit New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Pardes devoted time to make bedside visits to patients, something that other leaders might dismiss as inefficient. He understood that walking the talk influenced his colleagues.
Pardes valued employees. He put practices in place to ensure that people who worked at New York-Presbyterian were caring individuals and that they would be engaged at work. He advocated that everyone should have personal and professional mentors, and he strived to help the people he led balance their personal lives and professional growth. To extend the feeling of connection outward, he encouraged staff members to memorize the names of patients as well as their family members.
By combining value in the culture along with sound management practices, Pardes and his team turned around the struggling hospital system. Under Pardes’ leadership, New York-Presbyterian’s revenue rose from $1.7 billion in 1999 to $3.7 billion in 2011. Although most hospitals were struggling to attract and retain nurses, New York-Presbyterian’s vacancy rate for nurses was less than one-third the national average. While “most urban hospitals have struggled, New York–Presbyterian has thrived,” according to a The New York Times article.
Give people a voice. The third element of a culture of connection is voice. This element exists when everyone in the organization seeks the ideas of others, shares their ideas honestly, and safeguards relational connections. In a culture with voice, decision-makers recognize that they don’t have a monopoly on good ideas so they are intentional about keeping people in the loop on matters that are important to them, and seeking their ideas and opinions to get different perspectives.
The Cleveland Clinic boosted voice in its culture by holding Cleveland Clinic Experience workshops in which 40,000 physicians, nurses, environmental service workers, administrative and other staff sat together and had conversations on the patient experience they aspired to deliver.
Research studies over the last decade consistently show that 70-75 percent of employees in the United States are not engaged. They show up for the paycheck but don’t give their best efforts. While this may sound bleak to some, healthcare leaders should see it as a major opportunity. Create a culture of connection in your healthcare organization and watch what happens. You will likely see people in your organization experience greater productivity, prosperity and joy, and your patients will experience superior health outcomes.
Michael Lee Stallard is a speaker, workshop leader, and consultant, E Pluribus Partners, Greenwich, Conn.
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