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Communication is a powerful tool
Published on Friday, 29 Oct 2010
David Marshall is a firm believer in the value of communication.
Photo: Jonathan Wong

Leaders who understand the power of listening and make the appropriate changes will see significant improvement in their organisations within months. That is something David Marshall, president and CEO of United States company Safer Healthcare, has proved countless times in his work worldwide with more than 1,000 hospitals, whose performance he has helped boost.

"By training people for better listening and teamwork, we can directly improve the clinical outcomes," says Marshall, who was in Hong Kong recently to advise the Hospital Authority's eastern cluster on communications and to conduct a workshop for representatives from public and private hospitals. "A good programme will teach hard skills that people can adopt and apply, and organisations can realise bottom-line cost savings in three to four months."

In the US health care sector, he notes, data shows that roughly 80 per cent of problems are tied to a breakdown in communications. The unwanted outcomes can extend from simple administration slip-ups to "wrong site" surgery and incorrect treatment. Research also shows that in 80 per cent of such cases, someone involved recognised the problem in advance but either failed to speak up or found senior staff would not listen.

"Often, the lead clinician or surgeon does not create a fostering environment and encourage people to speak up," Marshall says. "But through training, you can introduce models and practices, so that staff at every level listen more and are more responsive. It is not theoretical. There are tools and checklists to use straight away and the same fundamental principles apply across platforms and sectors. Once you change the approach, everybody wins."

For example, he notes that team briefings before operating are relatively new in the health care sector. Meetings can be short, lasting no more than 90 seconds, but ensure everyone understands what needs to be done concerning the patient, procedure and individual tasks.

He also recommends the concept of the "executive walkaround". It breaks down barriers and allows the leaders of an organisation to hear directly from staff about their concerns and ideas for improvement. What should result is a list of achievable changes that can be implemented quickly, helping to boost productivity and morale.

"There has to be a business-wide strategy from top to bottom, so that, when communicating, each person is an active receiver and sender," Marshall says. "The right training methodology can see a team improve outcomes by 50 per cent."

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