Hospitals are feeling an enduring consequence of experienced employees’ early retirements and resignations: collective knowledge loss.
“Even when missing people can be replaced, missing knowledge cannot,” Ed Yong wrote for The Atlantic May 18.
Beyond hospitals’ challenges in recruiting and retaining employees are the stubborn and sometimes subtle problems resulting from decreasing median tenure within their organizations. The ripple effects of losing older, seasoned employees to resignations or early retirements can be harder to quantify, but are nonetheless felt by colleagues who stay, newcomers to the organization, and patients and their families.
Team tenure is a significant determinant to the cost and quality of hospital care. For example, a one-year increase in the average tenure of registered nurses on a hospital unit was associated with a 1.3 percent decrease in length of stay, a 2014 study from researchers at Columbia University School of Nursing and Columbia Business School found.
“I don’t think the public really understands how great the loss of this generational knowledge is,” Kelley Cabrera, a nurse based in New York, told Mr. Yong. She described the six-week orientation for her current job, led by some people who had been in the ER for less than a year, as “shockingly short.”
“When inexperienced recruits are trained by inexperienced staff, the knowledge deficit deepens, and not just in terms of medical procedures,” Mr. Yong wrote. “The system has also lost indispensable social savvy — how to question an inappropriate decision, or recognize when you’re out of your depth — that acts as a safeguard against medical mistakes. And with established teams now ruptured by resignations, many healthcare workers no longer know — or trust — the people at their side.”
National data on average tenure in healthcare has not yet caught up to compare with pre-pandemic longevity numbers. The median years of tenure with current employers for healthcare practitioners and technical occupations was 4.7 years in 2020, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ticking up to five years for workers in hospitals.
The benefits of lengthy tenures are felt at the front lines as well as hospitals’ most senior levels. Marc Boom, MD, CEO of Houston Methodist, told Becker’s this year the cumulative tenure of the health system’s executive team was a game changer throughout the pandemic. At the start of the pandemic, Dr. Boom had been CEO for more than eight years and at the institution for almost 22. The executive team of nine leaders, including him, collectively shared more than 150 years of tenure with Houston Methodist. The team had worked together without any changes for about seven years, when the most recent person joined.
This longevity lends itself to major systemwide decisions almost feeling instinctive due to their familiarity working together. “I had a team that was very tenured,” Dr. Boom said. “To work with people who you’ve known for a long period of time — you know the ins and outs, the strengths and weaknesses. You have almost an understood language. You can talk in five-word sentences, move on and everyone goes and does their thing. There are a lot of advantages to that.”
A brainstorming session with the CEO of a digital health startup this week highlighted a frustration familiar to anyone who’s tried to make innovation happen in the slow-moving world of health systems.
Meeting with a system executive team to discuss a new approach to virtual care delivery, he described the cross-enterprise collaboration required, and said, “You could see everyone looking around the table to see what everyone else thought, before anyone was willing to react.”
No surprise, as complex bureaucracies don’t reward risk-taking by leaders; often, innovation is slowly suffocated by internal politics and turf-protecting behavior.
That’s why we often repeat advice from one of the most progressive, successful system CEOs we’ve worked with: “You’ve got to eliminate the vetoes if you want to get stuff done. I don’t let people leave the room until we’ve managed to set aside all the reflexive objections and arrive at a resolution.
I expect leaders to be solution-driven, not objection-driven.” For all the times we’ve been asked how to build a successful “innovation infrastructure,” it strikes us often the answer lies in leadership, not org charts.