Why Soft Skills are Essential in Healthcare

A woman holds up a red stethoscope in the shape of a heart.

Technical skills—sometimes called hard skills—are critical to job performance in the healthcare industry. On the clinical side of medicine, providers' technical skills directly impact patient care. On the administrative side, healthcare managers and leaders need technical skill sets related to tasks such as operations analysis, resource management and finance. In both spheres, technical skills support safety, quality improvement and operational excellence while ensuring patients get proper care and clinicians can access the resources they need to deliver that care.

However, do not underestimate the importance of soft skills in healthcare environments. Medical facilities, rely on the combined efforts of healthcare teams made up of everyone from medical assistants to physicians to healthcare managers to overcome complex challenges. Adding to the difficulty, resource and staffing issues are common, healthcare consumers are often stressed, and the decisions in this field carry life-or-death consequences. Doctors learn technical skills and important soft skills in medical school. Non-clinical healthcare employees and leaders need to learn soft skills in programs such as Case Western Reserve University's Online MBA in Healthcare Management from the Weatherhead School of Management.

What exactly are soft skills?

There's a great deal of confusion regarding what soft skills are and are not. One formal definition describes soft skills as the "personal qualities that enable you to communicate well with other people." Contrast that with hard skills, which encompass all the technical abilities and specialized domain know-how that let workers do a job. Both contribute to success in healthcare environments, and both can be learned.

It's worth noting that the definitions above do not capture the breadth or depth of soft skills and hard skills. Necessary soft skills go beyond communication and related personality skills to include critical thinking, emotional intelligence, teamwork, time management, problem-solving and a strong work ethic.

Many graduate business degree programs teach soft skills in classes, through mentoring opportunities or during internships. Online MBA in healthcare programs are no exception. Students in Weatherhead's Online MBA in Healthcare Management interface with industry leaders, renowned faculty and highly accomplished peers during classes, virtual interviews and summer residencies, honing soft skills.

Weatherhead School of Management professors are experts in emotional intelligence and appreciative inquiry and regularly publish research supporting the importance of soft skills in technical and business environments. For example, Weatherhead School of Management professors of organizational behavior, Richard Boyatzis and Melvin Smith, and associate professor of organizational behavior, Ellen Van Oosten, wrote and published Helping People Change—one of Teambuilding.com's 11 Best Coaching Books to Read for Work in 2022.

Why are soft skills important in healthcare?

Healthcare professionals with well-developed soft skills are highly sought-after by employers and have a profound impact in the healthcare environment. An analysis by Burning Glass—an analytics software company that provides real-time data on job growth, skills in demand and labor market trends—found that among millions of job postings, more than a quarter of healthcare skills requirements are soft skills.

Soft skills are critical to patient satisfaction and safety

Communication may be the most important soft skill in healthcare. A 2021 editorial in the Journal of Patient Safety found that communication errors were a significant factor in 70% of adverse events in healthcare settings. Effective communication between office staff and clinicians supports patient safety and satisfaction during intake, treatment and discharge.

Administrators and managers in clinical and medicine-adjacent settings need to model effective communication and promote it at all levels of their organizations through leadership. That is why Case Western Reserve students assess and develop their personal communication skills and leadership styles in multiple classes in the MBA Core.

Soft skills promote empathy

Hospitals and other healthcare settings can be frightening places for patients and their loved ones. Doctors, nurses and specialists have to manage patient emotions as well as their own. Just as providers need to show their patients empathy, healthcare managers need to show providers empathy. Both groups do this by listening actively, being receptive to concerns and looking for thoughtful, data-driven solutions.

Promoting empathy in healthcare is not just about reducing patient anxiety or promoting provider satisfaction. Empathy in healthcare decreases malpractice complaints, improves overall health outcomes, increases patient satisfaction and leads to treatment adherence. In Case Western Reserve's healthcare MBA curriculum, we teach the value of leading with empathy in your organization. In addition, Weatherhead's team-based approach to learning helps students develop and practice the kind of emotional intelligence that lets managers lead more empathetically.

Soft skills contribute to diversity, equity, inclusion and cultural competence

Clinical healthcare professionals must be self-aware and inclusive to interact with patients from all backgrounds. Diversity encompasses ethnicity and race, as well as gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and religion. Inclusive healthcare providers and facilities are sensitive to details that shape what effective treatment looks like for all patients, pushing healthcare forward.

Cultural competence and inclusivity are equally crucial in administration. Leaders who promote positive organizational culture in healthcare settings can attract and retain high-performing, diverse workforces. The "Culture in Healthcare Organizations" class in Weatherhead School of Management's Online MBA in Healthcare Management gives students an up-close look at how organizational culture in hospital systems affects everything from operations to patient care. An intregal part of this course is the multi-day on-campus residency in which students visit several hospital systems in the Cleveland area and interact with stakeholders from across the institutions to examine how culture is operationalized in a real world setting.

Soft skills help increase patient satisfaction

Patient satisfaction plays a crucial role in long-term health. If patients feel confident at discharge and are active participants in the decision-making process, they are more likely to attend follow-up appointments and have better health outcomes. Patients are more likely to report satisfaction when providers listen to them, respect them and are empathic. They may be more satisfied with care in facilities managed by administrators with well-developed soft skills.

Healthcare administrators and leaders can set an example for others by applying soft skills to operations management, which is covered in depth in the Case Western Reserve healthcare MBA program. Operational procedures and policies created with empathy, emotional intelligence, flexibility and effective time management in mind ensure patient safety, enhance response times and maximize resource availability.

Soft skills streamline change management

Healthcare is advancing incredibly quickly, and the rate of change requires clinicians and administrators to adapt and think creatively. It isn't easy to navigate organizational change while ensuring teams have the tools to do their jobs successfully. Soft skills such as adaptability, creativity, decision-making and leadership are essential during organizational change to ensure effective process implementation and support.

Clinicians, administrators and leaders must make smart, creative, strategic and evidence-based decisions under conditions of relative uncertainty. Weatherhead healthcare MBA candidates learn statistical and operations research methodologies and tactical actions that support agile managerial decision-making in "Statistics and Decision Modeling" and "Strategic Issues and Applications."

Soft skills bring team members into the fold

With so many professionals from diverse backgrounds involved in decision-making in healthcare, teamwork is essential. Healthcare leaders must navigate high-pressure situations, conversations, processes and decisions without being confrontational. Common challenges healthcare teams encounter involve accountability, conflict, decision-making and progress assessment. Effective, communication-driven people management promotes teamwork at all levels of healthcare organizations through soft skills related to strategic thinking, communication, collaboration and organizational culture.

In Weatherhead's "Managing People & Organizations" course, healthcare management MBA candidates learn about managing people and organizations through a lens of behavioral science, motivation, team dynamics and more. Additionally, interprofessional education and team-based learning are core Case Western Reserve values.

Soft skills increase employee engagement

Employee engagement is critical in healthcare because it affects facility and provider performance. When engagement is high, employees are less likely to experience burnout. A report by Gallup found that employee engagement improves when workers have a clear picture of their responsibilities, share a joint mission with their employers and have the resources to meet objectives. Soft skills—particularly those emphasized in the Case Western Reserve healthcare MBA program—help healthcare leaders create cultures of engagement in their organizations.

Why top healthcare MBA programs develop essential soft skills

It comes down to demand. According to Monster.com’s Future of Work report, employers across sectors cited collaboration, dependability, flexibility, adaptability, teamwork and problem-solving as top skills they look for in new hires and long-term employees. Couple this with the fact that healthcare is an industry that requires people from very different backgrounds to be team players to deliver results, and it’s easy to see why a mastery of soft skills is so important.

Programs such as Case Western Reserve University’s Online MBA in Healthcare Management acknowledge there's more to the administrative side of healthcare than finance and operations management. "In medicine, it's not going to be one person who cures cancer," explains Associate Professor Philip A. Cola, PhD. "It's going to be a team of hundreds or thousands of people contributing. If they can't build good relationships, there will never be a sustainable team of hundreds or thousands that can work together. Everything starts with building good relationships."

The program’s virtual hybrid format offers flexibility that lets students continue working full time while also providing elite experiential learning opportunities at Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, MetroHealth Systems and the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center. Case Western Reserve MBA candidates interface with healthcare employers and employees across clinical institutions, MedTech startups and biomedical firms.

"That's part of what distinguishes the Case Western Reserve program and provides a significant market for it," according to Senior Associate Dean of Academics and Graduate Programs Gregory A. Jonas, PhD. "The convenience factor and the opportunities for experiential learning are a great local draw. It allows us to offer two great residencies for all students when they come to visit campus. And it's a great source for guest speakers and events. We have a local network that other areas of the country can't match."

Healthcare MBA program graduates can look strategically at the human side of healthcare management and factor relationships and engagement into administrative decisions. The end result is they become leaders equipped to foster better patient care and patient outcomes through intensive clinical and non-clinical collaboration.

Apply today to Case Western Reserve University’s part-time, online MBA in Healthcare Management program to advance your career on the business side of medicine.

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