Organizational Culture and its Relationship to the Patient Experience

By: Trude Henderson


John McLaughlin defines the phrase organizational culture thus:

A system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs that govern how people behave and make sense of their environment.  These shared values have a strong influence on the people in an organization, often dictating how they dress, act, and perform their jobs. Every organization develops and maintains a unique culture, which provides guidelines and boundaries for the behavior of the members of the organization. 

The dental office environment (which includes the clinical environment) is the single greatest influence on shaping a practice’s culture. Many team members happen to be the same ones that engage the patient at every stage of their treatment.

Simply put: to succeed, practices must carry out every phase of the business very well. The best-run practices tend to have deeply shared values that define their success in concrete terms, for staff and doctors alike. Practice leaders actively hold their employees accountable when they stray from practice standards, while taking steps to encourage team members, in order to reinforce positive behaviors.

In every practice, people are greatly influenced by those who exemplify and model these defined values, regardless of their official title. If the values aren’t specifically defined by practice leaders, staff will do it on their own, often with disastrous results for both the practice and the patient experience.

iDENTIfy’s 3-year pilot study found that those practices failing to properly define, communicate and model values functioned poorly because staff wasted a lot of time trying to figure out what they should be doing and how they should be doing it. This in turn led to many formal and informal procedural inconsistencies that transferred directly to the patient experience leaving much to be desired.

Additional key lessons regarding organizational culture include (these from the South Central Strategic Health Authority):

  • Culture requires a sustained effort over time, not a quick-fix mentality
  • Encouraging and rewarding right behaviors is critical
  • Perception is as important as the actual quality of care
  • Having the right people behave in the right ways can make a real difference
  • Constructive, frequent and effective communication can help transmute negative experiences into positive ones
  • In a healthy culture, people accept that errors and difficulties will sometimes occur, but they know how to turn those challenges into opportunities

Mike Martyn and Brian Cowell, in their Book, Own the Gap, hit the nail on the head: “Culture implies that the activity of incremental improvement has become who you are, not just an activity you do.”



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  • Very well put, Trude! You must hold your standards high on ALL levels!

    • Thanks, Justin. That means a lot coming from a dentist! We appreciate your comments.


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