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By Kay M.B. Thiemann, MBA,
Administrator, Section of Patient Education
Michelle A. Leak, MBA, Chair
Division of Patient Support Services
As resources in health care become tighter, programs often considered supplementary to a patient’s care experience become "nice to haves" rather "need to haves." Most managers of patient education programs realize that when the purse strings are tight, their program may unfortunately fall into the former category. That’s why it’s imperative that program managers constantly assess their environment and offer a service that customers need and value. To maintain its viability, the service must have clear alignment with the parent organization’s mission while efficiently utilizing resources.
How do managers do this? By formulating a business strategy. Strategy is a process that determines the direction a program needs to follow to fulfill its mission. Developing a clear strategy is important because it:
• Provides you with a sound basis for making decisions that will keep you focused.
• Helps you avoid being reactive to crisis situations, which often move you in the wrong direction.
• Leads to a common agreement on direction from all in your program.
• Saves time and effort.
Without strategy, managers often make decisions based on short-term rather than strategic objectives. Here are some simple steps when developing a strategy:
1. Assess your external and internal environment.
As program managers, our role is to continually benchmark with other organizations to assess the external environment. Defining the needs and wants of your internal environment — clients, complementary services, and other factors — is another component of the assessment.
2. Identify your primary customer.
Often the demand for services can be so great that organizations lose focus on whom they serve. Be specific in identifying your main customer, and the rest of your strategy will fall into place.
3. Evaluate your competitive position.
With the information from step one, develop a list of your internal and external strengths and limitations. In simpler terms, this is called a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats).
4. Identify key planning areas.
Ask yourself what common themes or words appear when reviewing the assessment information and SWOT analysis. Select no more than five themes; these are your key planning areas.
5. Define your mission.
Your mission should succinctly articulate the concept of your organization, the nature of your business, why you exist, and whom you serve. A mission statement is an internal guide for all major decision makers so initiatives can be tested for compatibility with the mission.
6. Define your vision.
Your vision is your destination. A vision statement provides a motivational picture of where you are headed. The more succinct your vision statement, the clearer it is to get to your destination.
7. Develop strategic objectives.
Strategic objectives help drive you toward your vision. For each key planning area identified, develop one or two strategic objectives. Strategic objectives should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and include a target date for completion.
8. Identify actions required to implement strategic objectives.
For each strategic objective, define your priorities, schedule, and resources needed.
A case in point: Mayo Clinic’s experience
The section of patient education at Mayo Clinic recently underwent a strategic planning process and department reorganization using the process above. Our results were used to develop a business plan seeking additional funding and human resources.
To assess the internal environment, an external consultant conducted focus groups with more than 70 Mayo Clinic physicians, nurses, and other allied health staff, as well as patients, department staff, and internal suppliers (illustrators, writers, buyers, etc.). Information on the external environment was obtained by benchmarking with organizations such as Cleveland Clinic and Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore.
What we learned was that a solid foundation for delivering patient education was in place. How-ever, enhancements were needed in several key areas (later identified as our key planning areas). Narrowing the focus of our service also was necessary to improve customer and staff satisfaction.
Identifying our primary customer was one of the most difficult parts of our strategic planning. In a patient education program, one would naturally assume the patient is the primary customer. Not true in our case! We identified the health care provider as our main customer. Our approach was to give health care providers the skills and materials necessary to educate patients "at the point of care," an approach that gained greater mileage with limited resources.
Next, our SWOT analysis clearly indicated that patient education was vital to the Mayo Clinic practice. However, many clients avoided using the department’s services due to slow turnaround times for new patient education materials.
From here, key planning areas emerged:
• Be more proactive and strategic in working with clinical areas.
• Prove that patient education affects clinical outcomes via research.
• Develop patient education materials faster (more timely).
• Deliver patient education consistently among the clinical areas.
• Be flexible in meeting patients’ unique needs and more easily accessible to health care providers.
• Provide financial and workload indicators to continually assess resource needs and demonstrate value to the parent organization.
Our mission, vision, and strategic objectives were developed. The mission provides a clear sense of direction, states why we exist, and identifies our primary customer. Our vision statement is concise, yet inspiring. Our strategic objectives are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and provide target completion dates. (To learn what the mission, vision, and strategic objectives are, see article on p. 107.)
Finally, our consulting services, patient services, and operational support teams began implementing the strategy by developing work plans for each strategic objective. Staff workload indicators and productivity measurements were established as a management tool to continually monitor utilization of resources and forecast demand for services.
Our business plan was strengthened by a solid strategy based on customer needs. The evidence? Our department doubled its staff and received a considerable increase in funding. We have achieved — and in many cases, surpassed — our strategic objectives. Overall service has improved, and customers and staff are noticing a difference. Blending business strategy with patient education showed our parent organization that our program is worth it — we are a "need to have" that is simply part of good health care for patients.
• Christensen J. Formulating a Strategy. Healthcare Management Initiatives. St. Cloud, MN; 1999.