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To succeed in a healthcare transformation, focus on organizational health

In transformations, healthcare providers and payers must attend to their organizational health, not just their short-term performance.

Healthcare organizations across the value chain face continued pressure to perform distinctively in a constantly changing landscape. Providers, especially hospital systems, are experiencing declining admissions and continued growth in costs as they attempt to build the capabilities needed to win in an environment that faces ongoing regulatory reform and new entrants with an eye toward disruption. Over the years, payers have been trying to generate value through vertical and virtual integration, since several large horizontal mergers were blocked. Large and small technology companies alike are innovating in the way healthcare is paid for and delivered. Disruptive forces—for instance, continued consolidation, new forms of vertical integration, heightened consumerism, the persistent potential for regulatory change, and unique partnerships among new stakeholders—are beginning to reshape where and how healthcare providers deliver their services for many Americans.

Margin pressures are growing as well: for example, from 2010 to 2016 inpatient admissions in community hospitals fell by about 5 percent, creating margin pressures on providers.1 Average monthly premiums from Medicare Advantage are estimated to have decreased by 6 percent from 2018 to 2019, creating margin pressures on payers.2 To relieve the pressure, many healthcare organizations are exploring one or more transformation approaches, such as increased scale, greater cost efficiency, and innovative business models.

Organizational health is critical to the success of transformation efforts

Comprehensive transformation efforts seek lasting, irreversible change in the way organizations function, but our research persistently shows that less than 30 percent of major transformations succeed.3 Our research also indicates that one of the most common pitfalls is neglecting to identify and pursue the changes needed for organizational health—how well an organization sets and aligns on a direction, executes priorities, and renews itself over time to sustain its financial and operational results. Good organizational health reflects a company’s culture, behavior, and management practices. We measure it through the Organizational Health Index (OHI), which assesses management practices across nine core outcomes: direction, leadership, the work environment, accountability, coordination and control, motivation, capabilities, external orientation, and innovation and learning. Thirty-seven practices support these outcomes (Exhibit 1).4

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Healthy organizations are not only more agile and resilient but also longer lasting. In fact, an analysis demonstrates that healthy companies generated total shareholder returns (TSR) three times higher than those of unhealthy ones (Exhibit 2).5 Across the board, different levels of organizational health account for roughly half of all performance differences among organizations.6

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The relationship between organizational health and performance is just as important for US healthcare organizations as for companies in other industries. In particular, healthcare providers in the top decile of organizational health outperform their counterparts on key measures of patient satisfaction, operational efficiency, and quality (Exhibit 3).

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How organizational health is applied matters

Sidebar

US healthcare organizations perform well on overall OHI scores and outcomes (see sidebar “US healthcare organizations have strong organizational health and opportunities to get even healthier”). But organizational-health practices can have somewhat different effects in different industries. Motivation, one of the nine outcomes, is important no matter what kind of organization you strive to be, for example. But the practices for each outcome should be interpreted and acted upon with thoughtfulness, taking into account the industry context—for example, financial incentives alone may make some organizations (such as sales-focused ones) successful but can have unintended results in others. As a recent article7 has indicated, in clinical practice financial incentives may not be the best way to improve clinical results.

Since financial incentives are an imperfect practice for building motivation in this sector, organizations in it should consider the full breadth of practices connected with that outcome. Our research suggests that in healthcare, other practices may be more effective motivators. The Organizational Health Index survey uses employees’ responses to determine the scores for the 37 practices. These responses reflect the employees’ perceptions of, for example, financial incentives and career opportunities at their companies. In our OHI data set, we have found that US healthcare organizations, despite their high overall organizational-health rankings, score at the global benchmark on the practice of financial incentives (Exhibit 4). For these organizations, the other four practices—meaningful values, inspirational leaders, career opportunities, and rewards and recognition—contribute to successful motivational outcomes to a much greater extent, pushing up the overall scores. In our experience, nonfinancial incentives have a particularly strong impact motivating provider organizations to improve their performance and the care they give patients.

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No company we know excels at all 37 practices assessed in the OHI, and attempting to do so is likely to produce across-the-board mediocrity. High-performing organizations focus instead on a few critical practices that work together as a winning “recipe” to create a coherent, effective management system fully supporting the strategic imperatives. They aim to be “good enough” at all 37 practices but to excel only at those few—often, about ten.

We have found four winning recipes, which we call leadership factory, market shaper, continuous-improvement engine, and talent and knowledge core. Each reflects different core beliefs about how to create value and make organizations successful (Exhibit 5).8 Our research has shown that across industries, organizations that rely on any of these four recipes are five times more likely than others to be healthy and to sustain strong performance than organizations with no alignment on recipes.9

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Only about one-third of the US healthcare organizations in the sample were strongly or very strongly aligned with one of the four recipes—the market-shaper recipe, in particular (Exhibit 6). The practices aligned with it include top-down and bottom-up innovation, a focus on customers, and the ability to capture external ideas. These practices are generating positive results in an ever-changing and more complex industry.

Sidebar

Meanwhile, traditional players are assuming new value-chain roles in an increasingly blended landscape of payers, providers, and service companies. To know how an organization will align, execute, and renew itself in the new context (see sidebar “Applying lessons learned”), the management teams of healthcare organizations would therefore be wise to spend significant time on their recipes for success.

US healthcare organizations cannot afford to wait out the continual uncertainty enveloping the industry. Many are embarking on major programs to redefine how they will grow and operate in the new environment. US payers and providers are healthier, on average, than many global companies. Yet healthcare leaders would be wise to build on that strong foundation while their companies embark on the performance transformation needed for a truly lasting impact.

About the author(s)

Gretchen Berlin, a partner in McKinsey’s Washington, DC, office, is a registered nurse; Deirdre McGinty is a partner in the Southern California office; and Stephanie Sherline is a consultant in the New Jersey office.