Management Lessons From Healthcare

Image: Ezra Klein

I just finished reading Letting Go, the latest treatise by surgeon-cum-writer Atul Gawande, which explores the ambiguities of end-of-life care. There is a lot to be learned from the study of healthcare. It helps us gain “insider” information that can not only empower us as healthcare consumers, it can also be instructive as we think about our own work.

As Drs. Leonard Berry and Kent Seltman point out in their book, healthcare customers are unique in that they are usually sick or injured and under considerable stress; medicine requires them to bare themselves–emotionally and physically–to doctors and caregivers to a far greater degree than any other industry. Healthcare providers must continually perform well together in the face of vulnerable customers, known human error, system failure and vast amounts of technology to provide the intangible service called health and well-being. It goes without saying then, that there's much to be gleaned from the individuals that serve us in this unique–and often life altering–way.

More than 70% of Americans now earn a living in the service sector, which encompasses everything from health, law, telecommunications and entertainment to retail, finance and beyond. The chances are high that we will all work in a service job at some point in our career. And the notion of service has applications for all industries. Management guru Tom Peters believes the concept of "servant-leadership" is critical for success no matter what business you're in. At its core, service is inherently about performance so medicine is a great place for management to look for insight about how to improve service for both their internal and external customers.

Gawande has found a theme in trying to understand human failure and imperfection and studying how individuals, teamwork and process can be improved against a backdrop of dizzying technology and massive amounts of information. What he also shows us along the way is that excellence isn’t innate; it is an ingrained practice borne out of learning from mistakes.

In his first book, Complications, Gawande recognizes that medicine, even with all of the latest technology, is imperfect and asks how we become even remotely competent at something that’s inherently flawed. What he discovers time and time again, is a powerful truth applicable to all of our jobs: excellence in anything is never just about the science; and even with “perfect” science, or well-established process, or advanced levels of education and experience, fallibility is a constant. Excellence in service, whether it's for our customers, colleagues or business partners is about accepting failure when it happens and moving on from it quickly to improve. In Letting Go he teaches us that it’s also about artistry–the human touch, collaboration, generous acts, personal courage and core values that guide decision-making and inspire extra effort.

He is arguably one of the best healthcare essayists for the medical layperson to read.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at 

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