Failure to Communicate

By: Jeff Cowart, MAH

[box]What is typically lacking is a clearly defined and sustained message strategy for physician engagement.[/box]

In the classic film, “Cool Hand Luke,” there is a memorable scene where the warden confronts Paul Newman with the line, “What we got here is failure to communicate.”

Given the disruptive change taking place in the health care industry, today I often think of that scene when I observe the tremendous opportunity and the unfortunate, but frequent, disconnect between hospitals and health care systems and the physicians who are aligned (or who they would like to be aligned with them).

Physicians are in varying states of anxiety about the future and the evolutionary – or even revolutionary – changes they face in the practice of medicine. From considerations of employment to the Affordable Care Act to the inevitable growth of telemedicine and more, physicians are trying to sort out the new dynamics of their practice lives.

This struggle is clearly demonstrated in a recent Physician Foundation survey of more than 13,000 physicians nationwide. In that survey, 84% of physicians said they believe the medical profession is in decline.  Nearly three-quarters of the respondents, 72%, said, “Hospital employment (of physicians) will erode the physician/patient relationship and quality care.” Another 62% said ACO’s are unlikely to increase quality or reduce costs. Unfortunately, the study raises even more concerns.

While the study presents some alarming findings, the current environment presents a powerful opportunity for hospitals and health systems to engage with physicians as credible brokers of information about the future.  The opportunity exists because hospitals and health care systems generally have trusted brands, even in situations where physician relationships might seem strained. For many, they are part of regional or national networks of care, such as HCA or Tenet, which have the resources to study and create strategies for the future, and routinely share those insights and learnings with physicians. Even in smaller to mid-size markets, hospitals and systems get contextual information from local and national hospital associations, and craft approaches to the new world that could be effectively shared with physicians.

This kind of contextual information about the future, informative and educational, is not to be confused with thinly veiled efforts to sell or promote the hospital or system’s agenda. The real opportunity happens when a hospital serves as an honest broker of the good, the bad and the ugly around complex and confusing issues.

In my work with hospitals, systems and physicians around the country, and as a former political communications message specialist, I’m often struck by the lack of or weakness in many physician communications efforts. What is typically lacking is a clearly defined and sustained message strategy for physician engagement. Appropriate communication tools, like portals and newsletters, lose effectiveness and the “stickiness” of real engagement without a message strategy and dedicated resources to manage the channels in a sustained way. We often think we’re talking effectively when, in reality, we have “failure to communicate.”

As partners facing complex futures together, a stronger strategy of physician engagement communications by hospitals and systems leads to stronger bonds of trust. Engaging physicians in ongoing discussions about the future benefits all parties and ensures we arrive at a better place in an uncertain future.