How UNC Health Transformation Helped It Respond to COVID-19

By The SHSMD Team posted 11-30-2020 03:54 PM


After a decade of expansion, UNC Health, based in North Carolina, needed to unify its 11 hospitals and 33,000 staff. It also needed to be ready for marketplace disruption. “We wanted to disrupt ourselves before someone else came in and did it,” said Chief Transformation and Experience Officer Amy Higgins. It began this process in 2019, as a 100-day transformation process, and showed its worth during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Throughout COVID, people have continued talking about our values. They really did become what people gravitate toward as we were going through difficult times,” said Lisa Schiller, chief communications and marketing officer.

Building Change Capacity

“It was a daunting task — this idea of engaging so many people and really involving them in the process — and we wanted to make sure we did it well,” Higgins said. UNC and Root, Inc., the consulting firm advising them through the transition, used an eight-step change process that started with getting leaders clear on the current reality and developing a “compelling future state.”

It transitioned to “building an organizational movement by creating broader leadership advocacy” and “getting everyone in the game,” before eventually concluding with methods of making the changes stick.

Process steps included:

  • Interviews and focus groups with stakeholders and key informants.
  • Hiring a consulting firm specializing in organizational change.
  • Realigning the leadership team.
  • A new leadership program for 2,000 leaders in the organization.

This approach ensures:

  • Clarity and commitment to the strategy.
  • Organization-wide understanding of the strategy and each individual’s specific role in delivering it.
  • Focus on sustaining that strategy so that UNC Health is able to achieve its goals and desired results.

Leadership Learning

As part of the endeavor, UNC Health launched a new leadership experience to prepare leaders for the strategic changes ahead. Sessions focused on four foundational areas: relationship building, clear communication, coaching and development, and “celebrations.” The program has scored high marks thus far, with 97 percent saying it was worth their time and 98 percent recommending it to their colleagues.

All of this work also resulted in four new shared values and belief statements, which were developed with the input of team members and leaders across the entire system.

  • One Great Team: “We are better together than we are apart. | Our effective collaboration is key to providing quality care. | We are building an inclusive and equitable culture that encourages and supports the diverse voices of our patients and each other.”
  • Carolina Care: “We care holistically about patients and each other. | It is our privilege to serve the people of North Carolina. | We demonstrate kindness and compassion in every interaction.”
  • Leading the Way: “We make a difference by improving lives every day and training the next generation of health care leaders. | Our research is changing the world. | We provide innovative care.”
  • It Starts with Me: “Each of us takes ownership of, and accountability for, doing the right thing. | We empower and trust each other to step up. | We support each other and hold each other accountable in our work.”

UNC Health executives held a leadership event in October 2019 to unveil the new pillars and sign a national equity of care pledge committing to adhere to the principles. It’s where they unveiled the transformation strategy to 2,000 leaders. “This is where we go from a vision, or a strategy, to ‘building a movement’ of human beings truly unified and working together with a common compass and roadmap,” Stanton said.

A Ripple Effect to be Proud Of

“I think Oct. 30, 2019, was the best day of my career because of the impact that we made on each person, all 2,000 of them, who we know will ultimately have a ripple effect and impact countless others,” Schiller said. In a similar spirit, an academic physician chair shared, “I’ve been a part of a lot of great things that we’ve done over the years, and there’s certainly a lot to be proud of. But I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this system than I am today.”

COVID and Beyond

Schiller and colleagues said these values have proven pivotal during the pandemic, referenced numerous times through all levels of the organization. The “One Great Team” guiding principle, in particular, came up often, she said. “The values became instrumental in navigating the past six months,” Schiller added.

In a recent SHSMD podcast, Schiller highlighted some of UNC Health’s successes during the early days of the pandemic. Those included being one of the first hospitals in the country to develop its own coronavirus test, launching blood drives and conducting an internal pulse survey to help stay attuned to its employees’ state of mind.

Higgins said they are now working on devising the best metrics to measure success of this endeavor, with engagement, diversity and inclusion, workforce wellness, and alignment all on the list.

Key Takeaways

The team offered three takeaways for others who are considering traveling down this road:

  1. Engage leaders and coworkers through storytelling, not just a memo or town hall meeting.
  2. Involve, equip and guide next-level leaders and physicians as catalysts of the transformation.
  3. Develop creative and memorable visuals, two-way conversations and nontraditional ways of engagement to effectively break through “business as usual.”

To learn more, you can access a recording/slides of the program, “The Secret to Organizational Change: The Story Behind UNC Health’s Culture Revolution,” from the recent SHSMD and AHA virtual conference Navigating a New Reality. You can view this recording, plus over 20 other sessions, by purchasing on demand access to this virtual event for $49.

This article features interviews with:

Amy Higgins
Chief Transformation and Experience Officer
UNC Health
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Lisa Schiller
Chief Communications and Marketing Officer
UNC Health
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Kalen Stanton
Managing Director, Health Transformation
Root Inc.
Sylvania, Ohio

More for Members

SHSMD members never have to go through health care transformation alone. SHSMD member mentoring is designed for advice from a member who has been through the same professional challenges you are facing. Or you can enroll as a mentor to share what you’ve learned and develop your network and influence.

Members also have access to MySHSMD discussion groups, sharing thoughts and advice on topics such as determining market share or finding the right solutions provider in the Strategic Planning group or, in the Marketing group, supporting staff through the pandemic or finding the right digital asset management tools.

Exclusive to SHSMD members also are planning tools such as Futurescan 2021 and a hospital-specific guide to scenario planning. The American Hospital Association offers a 2021 Environmental Scan and a new Transformation Talks series to guide hospitals through the coming years