Communications must evolve as healthcare system does

The Cleveland Clinic's Eileen Sheil explains how communications is a key part of hospital growth.

"Over the next decade, health systems and providers stand to lose billions of dollars in Medicare revenues alone." So says The Advisory Board Company in an April 24 article.

More than ever, hospitals must run more efficiently, reduce costs, and drive quality and affordability for patients. At the same time, patient volume and reimbursement from private insurance companies are also declining nationally. Innovative ways to generate revenue beyond traditional patient care is more critical than ever for hospitals. Communications is a key part of this process, internally and externally.

As hospitals collaborate with others to leverage scale, share best practices, and find synergistic services, communicators play a vital role in helping the workforce and public understand and embrace uncertainty and change. The challenge is that change means doing things differently. Reductions in services, consolidated programs, and the like can translate into workforce cuts. Communications strategies to balance this must be clear and simple.

Simultaneously, hospital growth must also occur for those facilities to remain viable in the future. These are confusing and conflicting messages that we struggle with daily. The Cleveland Clinic is building a new hospital in Northeast Ohio, constructing a new health education campus basically outside its front door, and recently announced new cancer and neurology facilities for our Florida site.

People want to be assured they will receive the care they need, while employees want to understand what changes will mean to them. Communicators are trying to balance mixed messages. At Cleveland Clinic, we're focused on our strategic direction and a few simple key points. We need to invent the future of healthcare while focusing on delivering high-quality care, ensuring access to all, and making it affordable to our patients. We created a dedicated intranet site that solely focuses on these messages. At the same time, our leaders and managers are focused on sharing the details and updates of these efforts to all employees, including face to face. We then survey our employees to measure how well they understand the changes. 

Internally, it’s the leaders – not the communications team – that need to deliver the messages of change. Communications then provides the "surround sound" that amplifies them. Leaders must be united and consistent. They need to communicate often to ensure the workforce fully understands what is expected.

Research from Melcrum, an advisory that counsels specifically on internal communications, shows that if top leaders aren't clear themselves on a company’s strategy – and that includes listening to employees and recognizing their successes – the likelihood diminishes greatly that the rest of the organization will get on board. In turn, the strategy is more likely to fail.

The lines between internal and external communications are blurring. With our nearly 43,000 employees, we know that strong internal messages drive better understanding of the organizational priorities and allow for more clarity externally. Communicators must fully engage and understand the plan first. That is imperative if they are to keep the messages clear and simple for every audience they address.

Eileen Sheil is executive director of corporate communications at Cleveland Clinic, one of the country's top nonprofit academic medical centers. Her column will focus on the myriad challenges of healthcare PR and topics related to the management of the comms function. Sheil can be reached at sheile@ccf.org.

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