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Systems Leadership in Healthcare For Improved Outcomes

Published on: September 6, 2022

As a nurse leader in a healthcare organization, you’re expected to approach your role with a systems mindset. You cannot focus solely on improving clinical outcomes, or cutting costs, or workforce management; you have to take into account all three — and many other performance indicators. 

Luckily, nurses are very familiar with systems. After all, as nursing students, we studied various body systems, their individual functions, and their effects on the body as a whole. The concept of systems theory in healthcare is no different. 

The underlying idea behind systems theory is that several factors affect patient outcomes, and these elements are complex and interrelated. Ultimately, 

“... by understanding how these elements operate independently, as well as how they depend on one another, a systems approach can help with the design and integration of people, processes, policies, and organizations to promote better health at a lower cost.”

Request more information about how we handle Health Systems Leadership at USD >>Because these systems are so complex and because they often involve several stakeholders, there is a need for strong leaders who can analyze the big picture and translate that into actionable strategies. But not just any leaders — nursing leadership in healthcare systems, in particular, is necessary to help frontline nurses navigate these complex substructures to ensure the best possible results for their patients.

So, what exactly is systems leadership? 

At its core, systems leadership is about working collaboratively to solve complex problems between the different subunits or departments of an organization. It involves bringing together people from different sectors and disciplines to work towards a common goal. This type of leadership in healthcare requires a deep understanding of how systems work and how to navigate them; without that foundation, it’s difficult to bring about innovative change within those systems. 

Systems leaders are often able to see the big picture and think creatively about solutions. They’re good at building relationships and creating trust. They also must understand what’s important to the different stakeholders involved, balancing those interests to find opportunities for compromise and collaboration. Health systems leaders use their excellent communication and negotiation skills to bring essential changes to fruition, ensuring that improved outcomes are the results for patients and the various stakeholders involved. 

Ultimately, systems leadership is about working together to create positive, effective change at an organizational level.

What does systems leadership look like within health systems? 

You can witness the systems approach to leadership in most hospital settings, where multiple departments and individuals work together to achieve the common goal of high-quality, affordable patient care. Effective health systems leaders wield a strong understanding of how the different pieces of the system work — independently, as well as together. They know the roles each person plays, and they’ve placed them there intentionally, as that’s how they can best be utilized.

Often, systems leadership results in the discovery of existing organizational issues, inefficiencies, and process improvements. Once problems have been identified, systems leaders work collaboratively across departments to find solutions. 

For nurses who want to make a positive impact on the overall quality of care that patients receive, consider leaning into your growth as a nurse leader and adopt a systems approach to leadership.

How is leadership evolving in nursing today? 

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed several areas in the healthcare system that require the urgent attention of nursing leaders today. First of all, the pandemic revealed significant health disparities and poorer health outcomes for people: 

  • of Color 
  • without housing and/or in poverty
  • with mental health issues or intellectual disabilities 
  • with substance use disorders

To address and eliminate these health inequities that continue to be a scourge on our healthcare system, we need more nurse leaders — nurses who are scientists, educators, innovators, and advocates. And it’s crucial to find nurse leaders with expertise in wide-ranging topics like research, informatics, change theory, and the social determinants of health.

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There has also been a shift in the way that leadership and managing in nursing is viewed. In the past, nursing leaders typically held management positions within hospitals or other healthcare facilities. However, today's frontline nurses are increasingly taking on leadership roles outside of traditional healthcare settings.

Many frontline nurses are now working as policy advocates, patient educators, and research scientists. In addition, nurses are assuming more responsibility for their professional development and career growth. As a result of these changes, leadership in nursing is evolving to become more diverse and dynamic. Hence, today's leaders in nursing need to be better equipped than ever before to address the challenges of a rapidly changing healthcare landscape.

What kind of leadership style is the most effective in healthcare? 

When it comes to healthcare, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. The most effective leaders are those who can adapt their style to the specific needs of their team and organization. 

However, some common themes emerge when experts discuss the most effective nurse leadership style in healthcare, especially in regard to the kinds of qualities leaders should exhibit. One of the most important qualities for a healthcare leader is the ability to make decisions quickly and effectively in response to rapidly changing situations. This requires a mix of thoughtful planning and quick thinking, as well as the ability to delegate authority and responsibility when necessary. 

Another critical quality is the ability to build trust and create a positive work environment. This includes exhibiting strong ethical values, maintaining open communication, and being receptive to feedback. By role-modeling these qualities, nurse leaders can set the tone for an effective and successful organization.

What is the scope of healthcare management?

Healthcare management is a field of nursing that concerns itself with the efficient and effective delivery of healthcare services. It has grown considerably due to the increasing complexity of the U.S. healthcare system and the organizations within it.

Nurse leaders who work in healthcare management are responsible for ensuring that patients receive the best possible care, while also working to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the overall system. This requires that nurse managers and nurse leaders employ a systems approach to management to lead strategically. 

Nurse leaders in health care management must have a deep understanding of both the clinical and administrative aspects of nursing. They must also be able to effectively communicate with both patients and staff. 

The scope of healthcare management in nursing is constantly evolving, as the field seeks to find new ways to improve the quality and delivery of healthcare services. However, the core goal of healthcare management remains the same: to ensure that patients receive safe, high-quality, and cost-effective care.

What do people in healthcare management do? 

Healthcare management is a broad field that encompasses a wide range of responsibilities. In general, healthcare managers are responsible for the day-to-day operations of a healthcare facility. This can include everything from ensuring medical records are maintained to overseeing billing and insurance claims. Healthcare managers also develop policies and procedures, hire and train staff, and oversee budgeting and finance. On top of this, healthcare managers must ensure that their facility is in compliance with all local, state, and federal regulations. 

After gaining some experience, healthcare managers may advance to positions with greater responsibility, such as director of nursing or chief executive officer. In large healthcare organizations, management may be divided into smaller units, such as human resources, finance, or information management.

What kind of degree do you need to work in health systems leadership? 

Nurses need a minimum of a master's degree to work in health systems leadership. Masters programs such as the MSN Executive Nurse Leader Track and MSN Nursing Informatics Track prepare nurses with the advanced knowledge and skills required to address today’s organizational problems in healthcare such as rising healthcare and equipment costs, the need for transparent billing, and ineffective payment models. 

The nurse executives of today — and of the future — need advanced leadership and systems thinking skills if they’re to be effective in finding solutions to these problems. Because of this, many nurses seek out a doctorate program such as the DNP Health Systems Leadership Track to ensure they’re adequately prepared to address complex healthcare management issues.

Systems theory in healthcare provides a valuable framework for understanding how organizations can improve patient and organizational outcomes. By taking into account the interdependent nature of all system components, nurse leaders can identify potential bottlenecks and design interventions that promote efficient and effective care. Moreover, by recognizing the impact of context on system functioning, nurse leaders can create an environment that supports best practices and innovation. 

Systems theory offers a powerful tool for driving positive change in healthcare organizations. When used correctly, it has the potential to improve patient outcomes and ensure that everyone receives the high-quality care they deserve.If you’re interested in pursuing a nursing role in health systems leadership, but want to learn more about what the work entails and the skills needed, download our Executive Nurse Leader eBook.

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