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Seven 'must-have' communication skills for health care leaders

September 24, 2015
From the September 2015 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

By Richard Oliver, Contributing Writer

Disruption has become a given in business. Nowhere is that more evident than in health care. Regulations, technology, shifting demographics, economic pressures and market dynamics have changed the face of the industry. Successful health care organizations must rethink strategies to improve care, reduce costs and increase effectiveness.

However, health care executives face a challenge. They need the cooperation of stakeholders, whether patients, practitioners, or payors, for innovation to work. And yet, the extreme nature of the change the industry needs can make obtaining cooperation difficult. Leaders must sell change. Strategic innovation and strategy require as much attention to communications as to implementation. Here are a few tips from my experience in various industries and at American Sentinel University, which has a focus on health care management education.

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1. Master the metaphor
Given the complexity of health care systems, one of the most powerful communications tools at the disposal of leaders is the metaphor, a figure of speech that uses analogies to common knowledge and experiences. A famous example is Benjamin Franklin’s saying that time is money, which communicates the idea that unproductive time wastes resources. A quick, incisive device, metaphor can be a powerful tool if properly conceived and used.

2. Make the complex simple
In the face of disruptive forces, either internally derived or from competitive assaults, leaders must communicate the need for organizational agility. And the enemy of agile is complexity. I learned early in my career at a telecom manufacturer that a complex insiders’ language can be a hindrance. It permits efficient communication with equally knowledgeable experts, but loses a more general audience. This company needed to explain to business line managers and everyday users how its products could improve competitiveness.

We developed a dual track communications approach in which we discussed technical details with experts and used simple terms to explain the strategic benefits to people who had to sign the checks. In medicine, as in engineering, there is a complex technical language. As health care leaders need to engage many people to enable necessary change, they must develop simple and clear ways to communicate what they are trying to achieve.

3. Refine
The effort to achieve simplicity doesn’t end once you have something that seems to work. Remember, the farther a message has to travel in your organization, the simpler it has to be, and chances are slim that you immediately hit the right tone. Always continue to refine your message.

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