Physician practices and healthcare systems have changed dramatically over the past 30 years and will continue to change for the foreseeable future. While the science of medicine has evolved at lightning speed, the business of medicine, and efficiencies in service delivery of healthcare for both small practices and large health systems, continues to lag behind. The gap between advances in medicine and aging models of service delivering are creating enormous challenges for smart and capable teams and the HR leaders charged with managing them.

Advanced payment models, population health, ever-changing state, federal, and local regulations, implementation alternative payment models, value-based care, mergers and acquisitions, divestitures, reductions in third-party reimbursement, and mandates surrounding electronic health records are just a few of the factors creating the challenges in the healthcare industry. Meanwhile, caring -- but stressed and struggling -- healthcare teams are desperate for support and clear guidance to help them regain focus on their professional mission; caring for patients, creating and maintaining healthy families. healthy communities, and healthier societies.

Taking good care of patients is what drove most healthcare professionals to go into medicine, yet it continues to be their greatest challenge. In fact, 80% of physicians report being overextended or at capacity, with no time to see additional patients, according to one survey of over 17,000 physicians. In another recent survey, nine out of ten physicians were unwilling to recommend healthcare as a profession and the American Medical Association found that 47% of the practicing physicians reported high emotional exhaustion, 35% saw less value in their work, and 41% were satisfied but not happy with their work life balance. This survey identified three problem areas.

  • Loss of autonomy
  • Mental exhaustion
  • Asymmetrical rewards (minimal rewards for a job well done, while mistakes result in heavy punishment)

In an effort to provide better care for individuals, better health for populations, and lower per capita costs, the Triple Aim Initiative has been adopted by many healthcare organizations. However, this initiative has not solved the critical issue of caring for the caregiver. In From Triple to Quadruple Aim: Care of the Patient Requires Care of the Provider, Thomas Bodenheimer, MD and Christine Sinsky, MD stated there was one crucial factor missing in the Triple Aim.

If we are to succeed with the Triple Aim, we must add one additional factor. To deliver the level of care sought through the use of the Triple Aim, it is of paramount importance that we address the high incidence of burnout and dissatisfaction within the healthcare team.

Research consistently proves distressed providers have increased incidents of avoidable medical errors, disruptive behaviors at work, substance abuse, depression, and even suicide. If we want to have good patient outcomes, it must begin with healthy practices for our healthcare teams. Top healthcare HR officers understand, caring for the care team is not only the right thing to do, it also makes great business sense.

Here are 5 ways forward-thinking healthcare HR leaders are stepping up to care for the care teams.

#1 HR teams need empathy

Let’s face it, physicians can be challenging to manage. They are used to giving orders, not taking them. Sometimes they intimidate their HR teams. Human resources professionals in the healthcare industry must be trained to be both assertive and empathic.

The importance of an empathetic HR team cannot be overstated. Empathy is one element of emotional intelligence that can be learned. When members of the HR team have mastered empathy, it is a powerful tool for both the individual and the organization. One survey from BusinessSolver found that empathy coming from a leadership team within an organization drives retention, according to 98% of HR professionals surveyed. In fact, 77% of employees say they’d work longer hours for an empathic employer, and 60% say they’d actually accept a pay cut to work for an empathic employer.

Given the changing healthcare landscape, it’s more important than ever for HR teams to learn and demonstrate empathy as a powerful resource for improved retention and engagement. Gaining understanding of what motivates teams, often composed of elite, highly skilled and highly trained, valued specialists helps HR staff act. They need to have a pulse on the day to day challenges and get in front of issues that, if ignored, result in poor outcomes. When business leaders relate to their care teams, they are demonstrating empathy, and this contributes to a positive work experience for all.

#2 Coach team members to adapt to disruption

If you have ever been involved in an Electronic Medical Records (EMR) migration as mandated by the federal government, you know the challenges they produce. Advance planning by HR leaders in the organization can help these types of events run more smoothly and eliminate much of the stress associated with an EMR.

Advance planning and the understanding that staff members can’t see as many patients the first week of an EMR migration eliminates the consequences of a poorly planned event. Without pre-planning staff members must deal with an overcrowded waiting room full of angry patients, an office full of upset support staff, and frustrated and cranky providers who will be up until 2 am completing their charting. When done right, the schedule is lightened in advance, the staff and providers are prepped with realistic expectations on the day to come. As a bonus to lighten the load, savvy HR teams provide a few inexpensive extras to show appreciation to the staff. Planning for the change will pay off in the long run. After you have made it through the migration, don’t forget to celebrate together, and say thank you.

#3 Open up lines of communication

Caring for the caregivers is good business and getting the right services to individual members of the healthcare team is critical. When it comes to physicians, this can be a little tricky. Many times, the HR team isn’t well prepared to identify or address individual needs directly. Open and direct communication is a critically important skill for HR professionals in the healthcare industry.

Physicians and other licensed professionals are often reluctant to reach out when they need help. Historically, there is a certain taboo associated with caregivers seeking care when they are experiencing a problem. Physicians are far more comfortable providing the answers, not asking the questions or requesting support.  Although many healthcare organizations provide associated mental health services, physicians and other elite professionals concerned with confidentiality, may be reluctant to seek services internally.

Although the rate of physician suicide is estimated to be somewhere between 1.4 and 2.3 times the general population, their likelihood to seek treatment is lower than the general population, due the associated taboo and due to worries of being reported to their licensing boards, should they seek care.

Forward thinking organizations take actions to maintain healthy employees, putting their resources in place to help their valued employees thrive before problems arise. Executive coaching, previously the secret weapon utilized by a small but powerful sub-set of the C-Suite, is now used more broadly within healthcare organizations. Large healthcare systems, and smaller healthcare groups, are recognizing the enormous ROI of executive coaching, and the business value of retaining, developing, and growing their leaders.

#4 Invest in and live your employer brand

Nationally, hospitals have a lot at stake when it comes to brand reputation, especially in recent decades as medical errors have garnered more attention in both the clinical arena and the media. Your organization’s reputation is as close as your patient’s handheld device. In today’s social media culture, words and videos go viral literally in a matter of minutes. Malpractice is a reality in modern healthcare. Patients are not as likely to sue a clinician or hospital that they like. Hire the right people. Teach everyone to embody your organization’s mission, vision, and values, and empower them to live and act upon those values.

Your brand is everything and the world is getting smaller all the time. One thing is certain, professionals in the healthcare systems often know one another and they talk about what is happening behind the scenes. The way you treat your staff throughout the employment lifecycle, beginning when they apply for a job, to the day they leave, and everything in between creates and sustains your company’s brand. Get it right. Continuously work on it. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do need to be honest, transparent, caring, and empathic if you want to attract people who will become your brand ambassadors and the best of care teams.

#5: Create an atmosphere of ownership and satisfaction

When healthcare staff feel autonomous, and when they know their work is valued, they become satisfied and fulfilled. They treat one another kindly. They take better care of their patients. They even take better care of themselves. Burnout decreases, retention increases. Medical errors decrease, as the health of both patients and staff increase. The next time you go to work, pay attention to how the staff behaves when they don’t think anyone is watching. Do they make eye contact with each other, with patients and visitors? Do they smile and engage one another? Or do they impatiently look at their watch or the floor? Do they look stressed and distracted? How might things change if everyone in your organization knew that their actions mattered and that their satisfaction was critically important? Satisfaction is contagious. Make sure your employees know their satisfaction genuinely matters to your organization.

There is no end in sight for the changing landscape in healthcare. Change is hard. Healthcare is a tough industry. It’s also extremely rewarding and humbling to play such an important role in healing patients, comforting and educating their friends and family, and relieving their pain as they make their journey beyond. It’s special. There is nothing like it.  As the healthcare landscape continues to evolve, HR must grow and change with it. We know that healthy teams come to work and do better work. They call in sick less. They help patients get well sooner and more effectively. Coaching and healthcare are a perfect match. Caring for the care team is the right thing to do. It saves lives. It saves money. It creates healthy individuals, families, communities, and societies. This world needs more healing and it’s within our reach.

Terry Hoffmann is a RiseSmart Certified Career Coach. She specializes in guiding healthcare teams, physicians, C-suite professionals, and other leaders using evidence-based best practices. Terry earned a graduate level certificate in Professional and Executive Coaching from the University of Texas at Dallas, Naveen Jindal School of Management, a Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology from the University of North Florida, and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Colorado State University. She holds the Professional Certified Coach (PCC) designation from the International Coach Federation and the Board-Certified Coach (BCC) designation from the Center for Credentialing and Education. She is the 2018 President of the Board of Directors for the International Coach Federation North Florida Chapter.