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The 5 Stages of Strategic Health Care Planning


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Strategic planning is a proven resource for enabling health care organizations to navigate an environment that evolves continually. It allows organizational leaders to clearly identify and communicate organizational objectives. [1] Health care administrators often fill the strategic plan leader role for care provider organizations.

The following article details the basics of the most common strategic planning technique known to organizational leaders -SWOT analysis which stands for:

• Strengths
• Weaknesses
• Opportunities
• Threats

When executed correctly, strategic planning results in an ongoing process of discovery and improvement.

Analyzing the External Environment

Strategic plan leaders begin a SWOT analysis external evaluation by segmenting patients into groups relevant to organizational objectives. [3] Next, they identify and record characteristics that differentiate competing health care organizations while noting how their own organization compare to these groups. Providers are the next important influence that plan leaders analyze when evaluating external influences. The final external factor is the objectives of the organization owner such as an individual, enterprise, or government agency. For example, a retail organization might start with geographical competitors, a global enterprise with changing political environments, and a government agency may begin with a review of current public needs.

Analyzing the Internal Environment

During this phase, plan leaders evaluate resources that stakeholders can change such as budgets and contractual agreements. They must also assess the organization’s legal environment during this phase. Other entities, such as unions and organizational decision makers, also represent important groups that plan leaders must evaluate. Finally, strategic plan leaders must assess processes related to clinical services and how these factors contribute to quality of service and patient outcomes.

The SWOT Matrix

During this stage of planning, the plan leader and the designated strategic planning group have developed several opportunities for improvement and move SWOT analysis. The evaluation team now examines the internal strengths and weaknesses as well as external opportunities and threats, categorizing the internal and external influences into one of four SWOT matrices labeled strengths, weaknesses, opportunities or threats.

With external factors — such as economic, technological, or legislative influences — organizations must exploit opportunities and protect themselves from threats. For internal influences, decision makers develop strategic plans to mitigate weaknesses and nurture and grow strengths in order to maximize organizational performance. Plan leaders also delineate the importance of each influence by ranking results as high, medium, or low importance, rankings that the organization later uses to decide which strategies to pursue.

Strategic Alternatives

During the fourth phase, the strategic planning team formally records alternative actions into a document without regard for whether the idea is viable. The strategic planning steering committee then classifies the alternative actions into defined action groups. Now group participants refine and vet the suggestions while narrowing down the scope of activities to realistic undertakings. During this stage, the steering committee identifies and discards the suggestions that do not meet organizational objectives or fall outside the scope of possibility. When this phase ends, the steering committee will have identified a maximum of 20 action items as potentially viable options for strategic action.

Strategic Areas and Objectives

Ideally, the team should have settled on 5 to 6 strategic areas to focus on over the next several years by now, making sure not to exceed ten improvement areas in total. Spreading organizational resources too thin will result in poor outcomes for all strategic activities.

An activity must remain open to intervention for the entire duration of the plan, and the team should identify no more than 5 objectives for each area. Finally, the team must name the strategic area using generic terminology that does not influence activities one way or the other. For example, the team might name an area “Performance” rather than “Performance Improvement,” because “Performance can include “Performance Improvement” as well as other objectives.

A Successful SWOT Case Study

In 2011, the Rush University Medical Center wanted to improve its ability to manage incoming patients. [3] At the time, the facility managed beds by manually tracking inventory with clipboards, which greatly limited the amount of patients that could check in each day. The organization opted to expand on an internal strength (the TeleTracking patient flow software that the facility already utilized for transfers) by expanding the technology to manage bed occupancy. After initiating this strategic action, the medical center experienced a transfer volume increase from 1,200 to 4,000 patients per year and a $53-million-dollar increase in revenue.

There are some planning initiatives overreach so far that activities start to spiral out of control. [2] When this occurs, health care administrators keep strategic planning initiatives on track. It is critical that administrators recognize the difference between being agile and flopping when faced with this challenge. Flopping involves making random changes and hoping for positive outcomes, where agility is making an alternative decision based on experience and forward thinking. It is inevitable that strategic plans will meet with some troubles, but this is when the best and brightest health care administrators display their merit by leading organizations out of troubled waters.

Learn More

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Recommended Sources:

Improving Patient Safety
5 Ways Continuity of Care is Impacting Health Care
An Overview of Health Informatics for Future Health Leaders


[1] Strategic Planning in Healthcare Organizations
[2] Hospitals and Health Networks
[3] Taking Command