What is Organizational Culture in Healthcare, and How Do You Improve it?

A positive organizational culture is very important in any establishment, but even more so in healthcare, where one part must work seamlessly with other parts to facilitate the efficient delivery of healthcare services.   Healthcare institutions, perhaps the industry as a whole, have historically dismissed the need of instilling a positive organizational culture; after all, that’s for white-collar office workers, right? Wrong.  In reality, organizational culture is just as, if not substantially more, important in the healthcare environment; it’s neglect is what spawned the burn-out epidemic we’re seeing today.  So what is organizational culture, and how can it be improved in healthcare facilities?

What is Organizational Culture?

Even though organizational culture permeates every aspect of an entity, it’s often difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is.  There are various definitions and explanations of organizational culture from different perspectives.  One blanket definition, quoted by Michael Watkins in his Harvard Business Review article on culture, is:  “Organizational culture defines a jointly shared description of an organization from within.”

In the healthcare context, this is how healthcare personnel relate with each other in their facility; taking it one step further, it involves how they behave in the workplace, how they relate with patients, leadership, and fellow team members, and the composition of subcultures unique to each particular division.  Organizational culture comprises several subcultures, depending on who is relating to whom. 

For example, in many medical practices with a staff of 5 or more, we’ll often see the front desk team create their own subculture, the medical assistances/scribes/techs will form theirs, and the backend office workers and billers will build theirs.  In medical practices, these subcultures, while often theoretically aligned in the objective of workflow optimization to enhance the patient experience, can – and generally do – have competing interests.  These conflicting interests are often built around an eye to defer blame for failures to other subcultures (the cliched example:  we’ll hear medical billers say “it was the front desk’s fault” for insurance denials due to inadequate frontend patient information gathering) while taking credit for successes (medical assistants, for example, taking credit for positive reviews generated for the practice because the patient wrote that they had a great experience).

Culture simultaneously forms and reveals health workers’ collective values, attitudes, and behaviors at all levels, with potentially competing subcultures subsumed therein.  Therefore, when developing incentive structures, it’s all the more important to be cognizant of the potential perversions and misalignments that certain types of incentive structures can generate between subcultures to the detriment of the organization as a whole.

The Role of Positive Organizational Culture in Healthcare

The most important role of a healthcare organization is the ability to seamlessly deliver quality healthcare services to patients in an effective and efficient manner.  Healthcare workers who intrinsically desire to uphold values that are oriented toward the mission of the organization will naturally display behaviors that facilitate quality healthcare delivery.

The quality of healthcare is greatly affected by an establishment’s organizational culture.  To illustrate, if the culture of a medical practice is that of respect, care, understanding, and quick response, the benefits will reflect on the patients and their overall experience.  On the other hand, if the culture is to keep patients waiting and treat them like just another number, they will air these issues and negatively impact the practice’s brand in the community.  In medical practices, we too often see partners yelling at staff, arguing with one-another, and generally making the work environment unpleasant, indeed sometimes completely intolerable.  This yields perpetual turnover (which is extremely costly), general patient unease, and an overall negative impression of the facility from all parties.   Now more than ever, patients (and employees) can easily share how their experiences were and how they were made to feel to the world, broadcasted in online reviews and social media.  Herein lies the intersection of organizational culture, digital marketing, and practice growth.  

Due to the scarcity and tight competition for medical resources, a culture centered on waste reduction, efficiency, and strategic planning will decrease costs, simplify services, and improve patients’ experiences.  The overall performance of healthcare organizations is greatly improved by a culture of hard work, productivity, and teamwork, governed by the delineation of individual and team accountability to realistic KPIs.

How to Improve Organizational Culture in Healthcare

Your facility’s existing organizational culture can be improved in various ways.  One of the most effective ways to improve organizational culture is to increase cultural inclusiveness.  This is especially important in urban healthcare centers that constantly cater to people with diverse backgrounds.  If, for example, there is an emergency and the patient doesn’t speak English, a healthy facility should have mechanisms in place to understand the patient and communicate effectively.  The cultural barrier is not limited to language; a facility must care for all patients, regardless of class, race, religion, or other differences.

Another way to improve organizational culture is to cultivate positive team habits at all levels.  This will be reflected in the general culture of the organization.  Such habits as hard work, honesty, and concentration at work will greatly improve an establishment’s efficiency and improve patient healthcare.  How to do this? Open lines of communication, extrinsic reward systems tied to KPIs, and most importantly, exemplary leadership are promising methods to foster this development.

Furthermore, to create a well-structured organizational culture that threads together subcultures oriented toward a common objective, clear, actionable delineations of the organization’s mission and vision are crucial.  To bridge the worlds of different subcultures, cross-training teams and promoting cross-team collaboration are excellent ways to unlock a sense of understanding and empathy between subcultures and their workflows.

It is not an easy task to improve the organizational culture of any institution, which is why it is favorable to include milestones.  Milestones help you keep track of the progress you are making and motivate you to achieve the next milestone in a realistic, tangible, attainable context.  Your milestones should progress toward the ideal changes you wish to see in your institution’s culture.


It is always a good idea to assess the organizational culture of a healthcare facility to find loopholes and inefficiencies and ways to improve.  Making changes in the organizational culture isn’t always an easy task; on the contrary, it requires perpetual improvement.  However, using the right techniques and models can more deeply entrench the process for positive change, making continuous improvement a staple feature of the organization’s culture in and of itself, thereby fostering a positive feedback loop of long-lasting, iterative success.