Trust in healthcare compliance programs 

Four ways to build it

Jay P. Anstine is a compliance professional and consultant in Colorado. He is writing a series of articles on compliance culture for the YouCompli blog. This post looks at building trust among your colleagues.  

I once worked with a physician leader who was – direct. Some might say overbearing. And he considered the Compliance department to be an unnecessary expense that just made healthcare more costly. When I was working on encrypting mobile media devices to protect patient data, he was very clear that he found this disruptive and frustrating.  

Realizing I needed to find a way to obtain his buy-in, I asked if I could spend a day shadowing his staff. I wanted to figure out how to offer a workflow solution that would work for the practice. I also wanted to learn more about the work he and his staff did. I spent the entire day with them, understanding their operations, and even had a one-on-one lunch with him.  

After that day, I noticed a dramatic change. Instead of me bringing issues to him, often times with pushback, he started reaching out to me asking my opinion on a question. After a few months of friendly and productive interactions, he eventually opened up to me that while he had tended to think of Compliance as an obstacle to patient care, he now realized we truly did support his work.  

I’m really proud of this story because it turned the project and the relationship around. It proved to me that when I take an active interest in others, I can establish relationships and build trust – which makes me much more effective at my job.  

Compliance professionals know that effective regulatory change management and compliance contribute greatly to a healthcare organization’s ability to deliver excellent patient care and healthy financial performance. But without a culture of compliance permeating the organization, clinical and operational colleagues may feel that compliance is layered on rather than foundational. They may see it as window dressing or paperwork, rather than essential to their ability to do their job properly.  

An organization’s ability to live up to regulatory standards has a material effect on its ability to serve patients and deliver financial results. Just one stat of many that illustrates this point: Consider HIPAA in the context of breaching a patient’s protected health information (PHI).

According to one recent study, 54 percent of patients surveyed indicated they are “moderately” or “very likely” to change physicians as a result of a data breach.  

Do your colleagues believe you’re there to help them do their job better? Or do they think your work slows them down? In organizations with a healthy culture of compliance, they partner with you to effectively manage regulatory changes. In less healthy cultures, they see you as something extra, a necessary burden. One big difference between the two is the level of organizational trust in the compliance function. 

So how can you build organizational trust through your compliance program? 

#1 Develop strong relationships with healthcare departments  

Start building trust by building strong relationships. I’ve found that simply taking an interest in my colleagues and establishing rapport is a great first step. Taking an active interest in others could look like this: fully understanding a person’s job role by asking questions about what they do or daily processes in their department. It looks like you listening to understand and with empathy when fielding a complaint from an upset employee or patient. Taking an active interest, means leading from a mindset of curiosity and not judgment. I found this approach transformational when I worked on the mobile device encryption program.  

(Related: Key skills for compliance officer effectiveness

#2 Mind your say-do ratio 

 Building trust is about your words and your actions. Your words won’t mean anything if you don’t follow through. As it relates to your work, if you have agreed to a deadline with someone, you meet that deadline. It means that if you have promised a deliverable, such as an answer to a question or providing a report, you provide the response. When it comes to building trust, consistently following up on your words with actions is one of the most effective ways to build trust.  

Consider a situation where you are asked a question that you can’t answer. If you make an educated guess without acknowledging that it’s not a solid answer, people will start to lose trust, especially if you have to take it back later. 

On the other hand, honest communication looks like being transparent that you don’t know the answer. And there’s nothing wrong with not knowing an answer. I’ve been doing this work for over 20 years and this situation happens to me almost daily. The key is to make sure your audience feels confident you will find the answer.

“That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer, but I will find out and get back to you.” That’s a much more honest – if vulnerable – approach to take.  

#3 Recognize supporters of healthcare compliance 

Recognizing those who support your culture of compliance contributes greatly to organizational trust in your compliance program. For example, when employees directly report a compliance matter to you, thank them. They have supported your culture of compliance, and you are recognizing them for the courage that it took to do so. If the allegation turns out to be substantiated, then I would again thank the individual for reporting the matter. If you want to take it a step further, you could also recognize that employee to his/her supervisor.  

Several years ago, I was working as a hospital compliance officer. An ER nurse contacted me because she realized a patient had gone home with the wrong discharge instructions. Rather than hide or ignore the mistake, she chose to report it to me. I thanked her for protecting the patient and supporting our compliance efforts by self-reporting the issue. Upon the conclusion of the investigation, I followed up with the nurse’s supervisor to commend the nurse for having the courage to report the matter. Taking this approach reinforced our culture of compliance. It also encourages individuals to continue report concerns. The result is building organizational trust through the compliance program.  

#4 Remain independent and objective  

Finally, you can build organizational trust in your compliance program by demonstrating that you and your team are independent and objective. That means treating everyone in the organization as equal and as colleagues. That also means if you are conducting an investigation, you are operating as a neutral gatherer of facts. You are listening to all parties involved with an open mind. Everyone, including the target of the investigation, should have the same opportunity to be heard without judgment. When you take the position of remaining independent and objective in the approach to your work, you are building organizational trust in the compliance program. 

Trust is fragile 

Trust takes a long time to build – and it is fragile even as it accumulates. Take these four tips to heart so you can create an environment where others see you and your team as colleagues they can trust: 

  • Developing strong relationships with others 
  • Keep your say-do ratio high  
  • Recognize those who support your compliance culture 
  • Remain independent and objective  

These approaches will help you create an environment where others see you and your team as colleagues they can trust. They show your colleague that you are functioning with the best interests of the patients and the organization in mind. You are helping protect not only the compliance program’s reputation, but the organization’s as well. When they see that, they’ll begin to feel trust – enabling you all to work together more effectively. 

Never miss an article from Jay P. Anstine, JD. He writes the Compliance Culture series for YouCompli.

A culture of compliance is critical to effective regulatory change management. YouCompli can enable your collaboration with compliance champions and free your time to focus on relationships and communications. Take a look at our regulatory change management solution today.  

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Jay P. Anstine

Jay is a compliance professional and consultant in Colorado. Jay is a healthcare lawyer with significant industry knowledge of the U.S. healthcare market. Over the past 20 years, he has worked for large for-profit and non-profit health systems and small physician-owned entities. In tackling the countless regulatory and operational issues for these diverse organization types, he has developed a deep understanding of the business of healthcare and the regulations governing the industry. In 2018, Jay became an adjunct faculty member with the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law, designing and teaching healthcare compliance courses.

Jay anstine