Is ‘toxic positivity’ a healthcare problem? One CEO thinks so.

Writing for Forbes, Sachin Jain, president and CEO of SCAN Group and Health Plan, argues that “toxic positivity,” or the idea that one should only focus on what’s going right rather than identifying and working on the underlying causes of a problem, is rampant throughout the healthcare industry and offers a few ideas on how to fix it.

Toxic positivity in healthcare

Jain writes that toxic positivity is a “somewhat understandable reaction to seemingly insurmountable obstacles, which perhaps explains toxic positivity’s ascendancy in the healthcare industry.” But now, toxic positivity is “bleeding into situations involving challenging but fully solvable problems.”

For example, Jain writes that nearly every company in the healthcare industry eventually pays a marketing agency to craft “glorious-sounding mission statements” that are then used by leaders whenever they are confronted with their shortcomings.

“Your health system just christened a new billion-dollar hospital, but is unleashing bill collectors on the indigent? Our mission is clear: Patients first!” Jain writes. “Your startup appears to be serving only the wealthiest and healthiest retirees, while pulling no cost from the healthcare system? We’re proudly committed to doing right by seniors by offering value-based care!”

Jain clarifies that he doesn’t believe all healthcare executives are cynically trying to avoid hard issues. Rather, they are “often too far removed from the front lines of the system, and even their own companies’ patient-facing operations, to witness the flaws.”

Often executives don’t notice the flaws in their health systems until a loved one needs help, Jain writes. “Only then do the industry’s leaders confront the reality that, at a person’s most vulnerable point in life, healthcare companies often treat you like a consumer … instead of just taking care of you.”

Without that reality check, it’s easy for executives to rely on their lofty mission statements and value propositions, and to “see their companies as distinct from, rather than intrinsically connected to, the industry’s biggest issues,” Jain writes.

How to fix toxic positivity

One simple intervention won’t fix toxic positivity in the healthcare industry, Jain writes, but companies can start by talking about their flaws.

“In a perfect world, the healthcare industry would commit to a culture of relentless interrogation of its flaws as a means of driving to better results,” Jain writes. Healthcare leaders need to “stop hiding behind company mission statements and ‘just-so stories’ about their impact and start speaking publicly about the steep challenges we each face as we fall short of fulfilling our specific corporate mission,” Jain adds. That means publicly addressing issues at events and discussing strategies for addressing them.

Private behavior within a company can also help reverse toxic positivity, Jain writes. Leaders should continue celebrating the accomplishments of frontline healthcare providers, but they should also “bring a critical eye to their operations and demand — not just encourage — that their colleagues help them uncover ways they can individually and collectively do better.”

That means asking questions like, “If our organization disappeared tomorrow and people were forced to find their healthcare insurance or services or devices elsewhere, would anyone be truly worse off and why?” Jain writes. If your company doesn’t have an answer for that, then you should work harder to increase your replacement value and drive competitive differentiation.

Addressing toxic positivity also means addressing the flaws in value-based care and having “honest, authentic conversations about what works and what doesn’t and why,” Jain writes. “About whether companies that proclaim to improve care are merely benefitting from arbitrage opportunities in reimbursement systems or are actually, meaningfully improving service to patients.”

Executives need to stop treating the healthcare industry like all other industries and “call BS on the idea that it’s somehow okay to be financially successful without making an actual difference in anyone’s lives,” Jain writes.

The healthcare industry needs to welcome thoughtful, critical, and reflective voices to every table, Jain writes. “Because nothing — absolutely nothing — will actually get better without them.” 

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