Culture: An unseen force in the hospital workplace

Parallels from the airline industry


“Workplace culture” has a profound influence on the success or failure of a team in the modern-day work environment, where teamwork and interpersonal interactions have paramount importance. Crew resource management (CRM), a technique developed originally by the airline industry, has been used as a tool to improve safety and quality in ICUs, trauma rooms, and operating rooms.1,2 This article discusses the use of CRM in hospital medicine as a tool for training and maintaining a favorable workplace culture.

Dr. Prasanth Prabhakaran, director of hospital medicine transitions of care, Baystate Medical Center, Springfield, Mass., and assistant professor of medicine, University of Massachusetts, Worcester

Dr. Prasanth Prabhakaran

Origin and evolution of CRM

United Airlines instituted the airline industry’s first crew resource management for pilots in 1981, following the 1978 crash of United Flight 173 in Portland, Ore. CRM was created based on recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board and from a NASA workshop held subsequently.3 CRM has since evolved through five generations, and is a required annual training for most major commercial airline companies around the world. It also has been adapted for personnel training by several modern international industries.4

From the airline industry to the hospital

The health care industry is similar to the airline industry in that there is absolutely no margin of error, and that workplace culture plays a very important role. The culture being referred to here is the sum total of values, beliefs, work ethics, work strategies, strengths, and weaknesses of a group of people, and how they interact as a group. In other words, it is the dynamics of a group.

According to Donelson R. Forsyth, a social and personality psychologist at the University of Richmond (Virginia), the two key determinants of successful teamwork are a “shared mental representation of the task,” which refers to an in-depth understanding of the team and the tasks they are attempting; and “group unity/cohesion,” which means that, generally, members of cohesive groups like each other and the group, and they also are united in their pursuit of collective, group-level goals.5

Understanding the culture of a hospitalist team

Analyzing group dynamics and actively managing them toward both the institutional and global goals of health care is critical for the success of an organization. This is the core of successfully managing any team in any industry.

Additionally, the rapidly changing health care climate and insurance payment systems requires hospital medicine groups to rapidly adapt to the constantly changing health care business environment. As a result, there are a couple of ways to evaluate the effectiveness of the team:

  • Measure tangible outcomes. The outcomes have to be well defined, important and measurable. These could be cost of care, quality of care, engagement of the team etc. These tangible measures’ outcome over a period of time can be used as a measure of how effective the team is.
  • Simply ask your team! It is very important to know what core values the team holds dear. The best way to get that information from the team is to find out the de facto leaders of the team. They should be involved in the decision-making process, thus making them valuable to the management as well as the team.


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