What a Companywide Book Club Could Do for Health Care Systems

By Melissa Parker and Sharon Nelson
December 25, 2019

“We have found a powerful and perhaps unexpected tool in our attempt to influence our culture: a shared reading program.”

Transforming culture is difficult in any organization, but it’s a particular challenge in health care, where change comes slowly, if at all. At Novant Health, a North Carolina-based network of 15 medical centers, we have found a powerful and perhaps unexpected tool in our attempt to influence our culture: a shared reading program.

For the past five years we have offered a voluntary, systemwide free-book program for our more than 28,000 team members. We invite staff at all levels and in every role to read a book together and explore themes related to patient care or personal and professional development. We carefully review books to find ones that will resonate with a health care readership, speaking to the unique challenges they face. We have invited the authors of the selected books to come in person for a culminating keynote address that is livestreamed and recorded so that all team members can watch.

We kicked off Novant Health Reads in 2015 with 8,500 copies of “Being Mortal,” Atul Gawande’s book on end-of-life and hospice care. We chose it to help team members understand the importance of “Choices and Champions,” an initiative to change how we deliver end-of-life care that centers on knowing and honoring patient wishes. We had struggled to get busy clinicians to have conversations with seriously ill patients. Discussing “Being Mortal helped our team members understand the purpose behind our expanded, long-term focus on end-of-life care.

In 2016 we turned to Shawn Achor’s book “The Happiness Advantage,” distributed to 15,000 readers. With its focus on developing a positive mindset to improve energy, creativity,and productivity, the book prompted a series of initiatives related to team-member engagement, satisfaction and burnout.

The book for 2017 was “A Common Struggle,” by the former congressman Patrick Kennedy. The work, which focuses on the man’s struggles with mental illness and addiction was an opportunity for team members to share personal stories. The discussions also helped accelerate Novant Health’s work in tackling the opioid epidemic and inspired the creation of a committee focused on reducing the stigma surrounding addiction.

In 2018, we selected “Type R: Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World,” by Ama Marston and Stephanie Marston, a book about a turning challenges into opportunities. The ensuing conversations focused on adverse childhood experiences that can lead to lifelong social and health challenges and how clinicians can help connect patients who experienced childhood trauma to supports that can draw on, and enhance, their resilience.

This year, we are reading “In Shock,” by Rana Awdish, a critical care doctor’s account of suddenly becoming a dying patient. The book offers her perceptions about the shortcomings of the current system and ways to improve it. We are now developing a program to help clinicians deal with the often unexpressed grief they feel when they lose patients.

The enthusiasm readers throughout the organization have shown for Novant Health Reads and the positive changes that have flowed from it suggest that any health care organization could benefit from embarking on a similar initiative. One of our physicians, Steve Stinson, described the initiative as “a program that nourishes our soul.”

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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