Since March 2020, healthcare leaders have been navigating one of the toughest crises in recent history. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced healthcare leaders, providers, staff and payers to respond rapidly to a highly complex, uncertain and dire situation. Hospital systems have faced drastically decreased operating margins (largely due to a reduction in elective care), high rates of employee burnout, and a spotlight on systemic inequities. On the flip side, the response to Covid-19 and an exponential increase in telehealth has proven that the industry—long believed to be slow to change—has the capacity to adapt when needed.
While there is a light at the end of the tunnel as more and more adults become vaccinated, the industry is unlikely to “go back to normal.” Many anticipated trends for the future of healthcare, such as the need for more agile supply chains, improved partnerships across hospitals and systems, personalized and virtual care options, an emphasis on diversity and inclusion, and embracing the use of artificial intelligence, have been shaped by the pandemic. Healthcare leaders need to understand that we are already living the “new normal.”
In our upcoming book, Change, John Kotter, Gaurav Gupta and I explore how uncertainty and complexity have been increasing for at least the last decade. This means that healthcare leaders need to focus on the anticipated trends for 2021 while simultaneously preparing their hospitals and systems to respond to the next big crisis. We can’t predict when or what the next big disruption will be, but we can assume there will be more and more of them in the future. So, how can leaders best prepare?
Take an Adaptable Approach to Strategy
Our world today is moving too quickly and changing too often to approach strategic planning in a traditional way. Leaving a select few leaders to create long-term plans with rigid guidelines and metrics will only make it harder to respond quickly when the world (or market) demands it. This doesn’t mean that strategic planning should be thrown out the window, but it does mean that leaders need to take a different approach to the process.
First and foremost, leaders need to be willing and able to pivot their strategy when necessary. Ensure you are able to do so by outlining key principles that will be central to your decision-making, rather than starting with metrics you’re looking to track. For example, if accessibility is a top priority for you, how might that shape the technology you invest in or the partnerships you establish? If nation-leading patient satisfaction is critical, how might you expand services or training opportunities for your staff? Once you have established the principles that will guide your decision-making, create an ecosystem that includes the voices of patients, providers, payers and the community. By doing so, you will be better able to spot shifts—and new opportunities—in the external environment that may prompt an informed strategy shift.
Emphasize Employee Well-Being
Healthcare workers have experienced almost unfathomable stress throughout the last 15 months. Rates of burnout and exhaustion are on the rise, with one report suggesting that 3 in 10 healthcare workers are considering leaving their jobs. While providers and staff need to serve patients, healthcare leaders also need to find ways to take care of their employees.
A recent conversation with one healthcare executive highlighted the variety of ways systems can put employee well-being front and center. The need for consistent and transparent communication is at the top of the list. This means sharing regular updates about Covid-19 trends, system-wide services, changes to policies, details about employee assistance programs and more. It also required vulnerability from those at the top. Knowing that their leaders are human, and also struggling with the weight of the pandemic, helps employees feel more connected and committed to the system.
Beyond communication, instituting mandatory vacation can help everyone take time out for themselves while demonstrating a system’s commitment to employee well-being. Many providers may be hesitant to use their vacation time, feeling an obligation to patients. But leaders should recognize that in order to protect their employees and ensure they are able to provide top quality care, they need to recharge themselves. Lastly, intentionally pausing some strategic initiatives can help avoid burnout by taking things off people’s plates.
It might be difficult to imagine asking employees for engagement beyond their day-to-day responsibilities, especially in the midst of a prolonged crisis. However, people are always looking for meaningful ways to help or connect their work to something they find personally valuable (perhaps even more so in the healthcare industry.) While this may need to look different in highly challenging times, it’s critical to find opportunities for employees to get involved outside the confines of their defined roles. Through Covid-19, one hospital system offered staff members (many of whom had been isolated for months because they weren’t patient-facing) a chance to volunteer to help put together care packages for communities hardest hit by the pandemic. This gave those who wanted to participate an opportunity to reconnect with others and contribute to a larger cause during trying times.
In moments of crisis, ensure that you make these types of volunteer activities accessible. Rather than asking for months of effort, try to find ways that people can get involved for a few hours at a time. As these efforts take shape, get creative with how you share about their impact. Think about creating videos or pulling together patient testimonials. For example, last Spring, healthcare workers created a series of viral dancing videos to cheer up patients and themselves. Such activities are an easy way to spark, and share, examples of finding both meaning and fun in challenging times. They will also ensure that you are capturing both hearts and minds, which will increase the likelihood of getting more and more people involved.
The uncertainty, complexity and volatility of today’s world requires a new kind of a leadership. Not only for the sake of business outcomes, but for the sake of the well-being of our communities. Healthcare leaders are uniquely positioned to be a beacon of what’s possible—to be an example of how working differently can create a system that’s better able to adapt to the ever-changing world around us.