Writing prescription

The term “community engagement” in healthcare is often viewed as an external concern, a matter of outreach and education. Healthcare organizations, however, are wise to expand their definition to embrace community building among and between all stakeholders, from staff and patients to the public at large. The benefits of this expanded view are many and varied, with four that deserve particular attention.

One

Building a sense of community within healthcare organizations can improve recruitment and retention. It’s no secret that virtually all healthcare organizations face growing challenges in attracting and keeping medical workers. One study estimates that the United States will have a shortage of 130,000 physicians by 2030, while another points to a worldwide deficit in all types of healthcare roles, totaling some 15 million workers.

The effort to get and keep scarce hospital and health facility staff will only grow more competitive. Pay and perks will always play a role in recruitment and retention – but so will employee satisfaction. This is where comprehensive community building can make a real difference. The National Institute of Health surveyed a variety of healthcare organizations about retention in particular, and reported that effective “strategies included encouraging a sense of community ownership; creating social opportunities; recruiting a suitable leader; and offering flexibility and support.”

That one quote holds a world of good advice for creating the kind of organizational culture that people will want to join and stay with. In short:

  • Encourage a sense of community ownership – create programs, and an environment, that gets staff to personally embrace and “own” the organization’s vision and impact, internally and externally.
  • Create social opportunities – ensure that co-workers know and enjoy each other as people, not simply professionals.
  • Recruit a suitable leader – creating a culture of community-building starts at the top, should extend to all leaders, and needs to be communicated by example.
  • Offer flexibility and support – it’s simple: the healthcare industry must care for its own if it wants to keep them.

Two

A better sense of community = better teamwork = better outcomes. When an organization’s staff feels like a community, all sorts of other good “co-” things happen, especially better communication and collaboration across functions and departments. According to the American Hospital Association, the impact of improved collaboration on the core mission of delivering better care is profound: “When all clinical and nonclinical staff collaborate effectively, healthcare teams can improve patient outcomes, prevent medical errors, improve efficiency and increase patient satisfaction.”

Three

Cultivating an inclusive community around healthcare creates meaningful partners and participation. Real community obviously requires engaging beyond an organization’s walls; in fact, it requires casting a very wide net. You need to gather in individuals, families, institutions, and schools, to both educate and learn from them. This means more than providing services – it also means empowering people to serve their own health needs. This engagement can take many forms, including:

  • Listening: From formal research to informal, inter-personal listening, regularly listening to the community at large provides both the data and context required to effectively shape programs and services to best fit a specific community’s needs.
  • Communicating: Once you’ve listened, it’s easier to take the role of communicator and connector within the community. This can help individuals better understand their health needs and options, and organizations better connect to those needs.
  • Educating: Given the increasingly complex, even bewildering state of healthcare, on-going education is not a nicety; it’s a necessity – and one that pays. A recent think tank report about education as community engagement notes, “devoting time and effort to inform and educate partnership participants and the public at large is an investment that will pay long-term dividends.”
  • Collaborating: No one, and no one organization, builds community alone. The development of community partnerships, with schools, churches, not-for-profits and government agencies, increases input from and access to patients, volunteers, donors, and influencers.

Four

Community-building elevates your organization’s standing. Healthcare providers operating in a traditional mode may only be seen as just that – providers of services, vendors of healthcare. Healthcare facilities – and especially hospitals – that aim to be more than being just “fix it” centers can become the nexus of civic improvement, and true leaders in boosting the physical, mental and even fiscal health of the cities and towns they serve.

Do you want to create the most promising environment for better health? Then it’s time to start creating a better sense of community.

SOURCES
NIH: Community Participation Benefits
NIH: Effective Recruitment and Retention Strategies
CNN Business: US Can’t Keep Up with Demand for Healthcare Workers
AAMC: New Research Shows Increasing Physician Shortages
USC Keck School of Medicine: A Closer Look at the Public Healthcare Worker Shortage
HRET: Hospital/Community Partnerships to Build a Culture of Health (Case studies)