Conflict Resolution in the Healthcare Workplace

Healthcare organizations have been slow to explore the use of mediation to manage conflict. Yet many areas in the healthcare business would benefit from this approach to conflict resolution.  Workplace disputes can be enormously expensive. Using a neutral facilitator (a mediator) who helps the people involved to discuss the situation and develop thoughtful, self-crafted solutions saves time and money.

The goal of healthcare is to help patients leave the treatment facility in better health than when they arrived. However, preventable medical errors cause thousands of deaths annually.  For example, about 18 percent of patients in hospitals are injured during the course of their care and many of those injuries are life-threatening, or even fatal (New England Journal of Medicine, 2010). Further, medication error is one of the top ten causes for death among children (Wrong Diagnosis, 2009).  Infections contracted at  healthcare facilities are another risk that can be prevented or reduced.

A key factor in improving the quality of patient care is collaboration or teamwork – professional healthcare staff’s communicating and interacting to guide patient care.  When minutes can matter, it is important to arrive at a good decision quickly.  Workplace conflict can arise out of differences of opinions, educational degrees that separate team members (“nurses” or “doctors”), and professional status or social power. In addition, many healthcare professionals are stressed by the need to treat even the most fragile patients within the insurance companies’ allotted time frames.

When team members do not understand and respect each other’s roles and contributions, it can obstruct collaboration.  Mediators can help clashing team members separate facts from assumptions.  They can help the disputing co-workers see each other’s point of view. As appropriate, the mediator may ask questions, and make observations about parties’ positions. The mediation process provides an opportunity for thoughtful resolution of emotional and highly-charged disputes surrounding medical errors, patient safety, and inter‐staff controversy.

A mediation meeting among staff members of a healthcare facility is usually easy to arrange so that disputes can be resolved quickly. Mediation is a confidential process, so patient privacy can be protected. The end result is a reduction in the time and cost devoted to workplace disputes. This is particularly important in the health care industry, which is under political and social pressures to control costs.