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Lifesaving Leadership Lessons From The Pandemic

Surgeons performing an operation
Can the pandemic serve as a catalyst for creating a safer, more efficient and more patient-centric healthcare service?
  • New research shows consistency in healthcare increases efficiency and reduces deaths
  • Hospital stays can be reduced by 30% if a surgeon is paired with a familiar team
  • Effective organisation of teams is essential when deploying critical hospital resources

Without question the healthcare industry, more than any other, has been rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic. Forced to cope with near overwhelming influxes of patients, without having access to sufficient or effective equipment or treatments, forced to make the difficult choice to pausing elective, though vital, procedures for others for months on end, and all this with only a limited measure of additional support. The pandemic has forced the sector to change nearly everything about its design and how it operates in times of crisis.

Despite the turmoil, COVID-19 can hopefully serve as a catalyst for creating a safer, more efficient and more patient-centric experience for future patients. But unfortunately, for now, healthcare staff are still working relentlessly under heavy psychological and physical distress caused by the pandemic. As we enter yet another year dominated by the virus, the feelings of failure many healthcare staff experience as they care for severely sick patients and with death rates still soaring in many countries the strain might be too hard for many to bear.

Which is why by Dr Ioannis Fragkos, from the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) decided to take action, embarking on a research project to find out how hospital managers could mitigate the impact of negative experiences of medical staff – even including the deaths of their patients. An Associate Professor in the School’s Department of Technology and Operations Management, he wanted to understand how healthcare workers felt when patients died, and how this affected the ways they continued with their work.

To do this, working with fellow research colleagues, Dr Fragkos used a simulated model to compare a ‘normal’ rotation policy for surgical team members against a policy that avoids pairing the lead surgeon with less familiar team members.

Interestingly, they found that the teams that worked together more frequently were more resilient after experiencing failure or patient death, helping to mitigate the negative effects of failure.

In fact, the researchers found that failure’s experienced by such teams actually promoted learning opportunities, and improved their future performance as a result.

It is clear from Dr Fragkos’ results that pairing lead surgeons with teams that are familiar to them means that leaders are more able to support their teams in moving forward after failure. The study showed that this support for the surgical team resulted in a 30% reduction in hospital stays for patients, freeing up hospital beds more quickly and frequently, and ultimately increasing hospital output.

According to Dr Fragkos, “When surgical teams have negative experiences – such as the death of a patient that they have operated on – they experience negative emotions which reduce the teams’ performances on subsequent operations. Specifically, patients operated on by a team that recently experienced another patient’s death need more in-hospital recovery time.”

He goes on to say that, with hospital beds being a limited resource, hospital managers should be alerted to this hidden impact of patient deaths. “Put into numbers, our study suggests that just one recent patient death experience for a surgical team can increase in-hospital stays for the teams’ subsequent patients by 44 per cent, which translates to around 4.6 days,” he says. “The consequences could be significant for the deployment of a hospital’s critical resources.”

And why is this finding so important? Well, management experts often speak of how failures can provide a positive outcome from the point of view of performance – we know that workplaces that embrace failure are in the best position to cultivate a culture of learning and development. Paul Schoemaker, a renowned pioneer in the field of decision sciences, writes of ‘brilliant mistakes’, estimating that half the discoveries in healthcare had an accidental origin – the most famous of these being Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. In fact, many companies now recognise the need to create a no-blame culture, shaking things up to help encourage more innovation. Google for example, rewards failure.

But in surgery, when the stakes are higher, the researchers warn that effective leaders should protect the members of healthcare teams from the psychological effects – and the operational ramifications – that come in the aftermath of the death of a patient.  As this research proves, this is most effectively done by keeping teams as stable as possible in times of crisis.

According to Dr Fragkos,“Healthcare managers who recognise how failures impact productivity in the long term will still see failures as learning opportunities. Such leaders understand that team members who together experience failures can develop more meaningful familiarity with each other, which ultimately improves their productivity.”

It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic will forever change healthcare and hopefully create a more efficient healthcare system. It’s often the lessons we learn in times of crisis that are the most valuable.

And with all the doom and gloom, it’s important for leaders to be efficient and tactical when managing during a crisis. Authentically supporting employees and facilitating innovation are two ways leaders can spark success when times are hard.

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