2014 Hospital SOPS Database Report

Chapter 8. What's Next?

The seven steps of action planning outlined in this chapter are primarily based on the book, Designing and Using Organizational Surveys: A Seven-Step Process (Church and Waclawski, 1998).


  • The delivery of survey results is not the end point in the survey process; it is just the beginning.
  • Often, the perceived failure of surveys to create lasting change is actually due to faulty or nonexistent action planning or survey followup.
  • Seven steps of action planning are provided to give hospitals guidance on next steps to take to turn their survey results into actual patient safety culture improvement.

Seven Steps of Action Planning

Administering the hospital survey can be considered an "intervention," a means of educating hospital staff and building awareness about issues of concern related to patient safety. But it should not be the only goal of conducting the survey. Administering the survey is not enough. Keep in mind that the delivery of survey results is not the end point in the survey process; it is actually just the beginning. Often, the perceived failure of surveys as a means for creating lasting change is actually due to faulty or nonexistent action planning or survey followup.

Seven steps of action planning are provided to help your hospital go beyond simply conducting a survey to realizing patient safety culture change. The progression is getting survey results, developing an action plan, and implementing the plan and tracking progress.

The seven steps of action planning are:

  1. Understand your survey results.
  2. Communicate and discuss survey results.
  3. Develop focused action plans.
  4. Communicate action plans and deliverables.
  5. Implement action plans.
  6. Track progress and evaluate impact.
  7. Share what works.

Step #1: Understand Your Survey Results

It is important to review the survey results and interpret them before you develop action plans. Develop an understanding of your hospital's key strengths and areas for improvement. Examine your hospital's overall percent positive scores on the patient safety culture composites and items.

  • Which areas were most and least positive?
  • How do your hospital's results compare with the results from the database hospitals?

Next, consider examining your survey data broken down by work area/unit or staff position.

  • Are there different areas for improvement for different hospital units?
  • Are there different areas for improvement for different hospital staff?
  • Do any patterns emerge?
  • How do your hospital's results for these breakouts compare with the results from the database hospitals?

Finally, if your hospital administered the survey more than once, compare your most recent results with your previous results to examine change over time.

  • Did your hospital have an increase in its scores on any of the survey composites or items?
  • Did your hospital have a decrease in its scores?
  • When you consider the types of patient safety actions that your hospital implemented between each survey administration, do you notice improvements in those areas?

After reviewing the survey results carefully, identify two or three areas for improvement to avoid focusing on too many issues at one time.

Step #2: Communicate and Discuss the Survey Results

Common complaints among survey respondents are that they never get any feedback about survey results and have no idea whether anything ever happens as a result of a survey. It is therefore important to thank your staff for taking the time to complete the survey and let them know that you value their input. Sharing results from the survey throughout the hospital shows your commitment to the survey and improvement process.

Use survey feedback as an impetus for change. Feedback can be provided at the hospital level and at the department or unit level. However, to ensure respondent anonymity and confidentiality, it is important to report data only if there are enough respondents in a particular category or group. Common rules of thumb recommend not reporting data if a category has fewer than 5 or 10 respondents. For example, if a department has only four respondents, that department's data should not be reported separately because there are too few respondents to provide complete assurance of anonymity and confidentiality.

Summaries of the survey results should be distributed throughout the hospital in a top-down manner, beginning with senior management, administrators, medical and senior leaders, and committees, followed by department or unit managers and then staff. Managers at all levels should be expected to carefully review the findings. Summarize key findings, but also encourage discussion about the results throughout the hospital. What do others see in the data and how do they interpret the results?

In some cases, it may not be completely clear why an area of patient safety culture was particularly low. Keep in mind that surveys are only one way of examining culture, so strive for a deeper understanding when needed. Conduct followup activities, such as focus groups or interviews with staff to find out more about an issue, why it is problematic, and how it can be improved.

Step #3: Develop Focused Action Plans

Once areas for patient safety culture improvement have been identified, formal written action plans need to be developed to ensure progress toward change. Hospitalwide, department-based, or unit-based action plans can be developed. Major goals can be established as hospitalwide action plans. Unit-specific goals can be fostered by encouraging and empowering staff to develop action plans at the unit level.

Encourage action plans that are "SMART":

  • Specific.
  • Measurable.
  • Achievable.
  • Relevant.
  • Time bound.

When deciding whether a particular action plan or initiative would be a good fit in your facility, you may find the guide, Will It Work Here? A Decisionmaker's Guide to Adopting Innovations (Brach, Lenfestey, Roussel, et al., 2008) a useful resource (https://innovations.ahrq.gov/qualitytools/ will-it-work-here-decisionmakers-guide-adopting-innovations). The guide helps users answer four overarching questions:

  • Does this innovation fit?
  • Should we do it here?
  • Can we do it here?
  • How can we do it here?

Lack of resources is often a fundamental obstacle hindering implementation of action plans. Identify funding, staffing, or other resources needed to implement action plans and take steps to obtain these resources. It is also important to identify other obstacles you may encounter when trying to implement change and to anticipate and understand the rationale behind any potential resistance toward proposed action plans.

In the planning stage, it is also important to identify quantitative and qualitative measures that can be used to evaluate progress and the impact of changes implemented. Evaluative measures will need to be assessed before, during, and after implementation of your action plan initiatives.

Step #4: Communicate Action Plans and Deliverables

Once action plans have been developed, the plans, deliverables, and expected outcomes of the plans need to be communicated. Those directly involved or affected will need to know their roles and responsibilities, as well as the timeframe for implementation. Action plans and goals should also be shared widely so that their transparency encourages further accountability and demonstrates the hospitalwide commitments being made in response to the survey results.

At this step it is important for senior hospital managers and leaders to understand that they are the primary owners of the change process and that success depends on their full commitment and support. Senior-level commitment to taking action must be strong; without buy-in from the top, including medical leadership, improvement efforts are likely to fail.

Step #5: Implement Action Plans

Implementing action plans is one of the hardest steps. Taking action requires the provision of necessary resources and support. It requires tracking quantitative and qualitative measures of progress and success that have already been identified. It requires publicly recognizing those individuals and units who take action to drive improvement. And it requires adjustments along the way.

This step is critical to realizing patient safety culture improvement. While communicating the survey results is important, taking action makes the real difference. However, as the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (2006) suggests, actions do not have to be major permanent changes. In fact, it is worthwhile to strive to implement easier smaller changes that are likely to have a positive impact rather than big changes with unknown probability of success.

The "Plan-Do-Study-Act" cycle (Langley, Nolan, Nolan, et al., 1996), shown in Chart 8-1, is a pilot-study approach to change. It involves first developing a small-scale plan to test a proposed change (Plan), carrying out the plan (Do), observing and learning from the consequences (Study), and determining what modifications should be made to the plan (Act). Implementation of action plans can occur on a small scale within a single unit to examine impact and refine plans before rolling out the changes on a larger scale to other units or hospitals.

Chart 8-1. Plan-Do-Study-Act Cycle

The Plan-Do-Study-Act Cycle is a circle divided into four equal sections, labeled Plan, Do, Study, and Act respectively. Arrows point from one section to the next in a clockwise direction, indicating that the process is a continuous cycle.

Step #6: Track Progress and Evaluate Impact

Use quantitative and qualitative measures to review progress and evaluate whether a specific change actually leads to improvement. Ensure that there is timely communication of progress toward action plans on a regular basis. If you determine that a change has worked, communicate that success to staff by telling them what was changed and that it was done in response to the safety culture survey results. Be sure to make the connection to the survey so that the next time the survey is administered, staff will know that it will be worthwhile to participate again because actions were taken based on the prior survey's results.

Alternatively, your evaluation may show that a change is not working as expected or has failed to reach its goals and will need to be modified or replaced by another approach. Before you drop the effort completely, try to determine why it failed and whether it might be worth it to make adjustments.

Keep in mind that it is important not to reassess culture too frequently because lasting culture change will be slow and may take years. Frequent assessments of culture are likely to find temporary shifts or improvements that may come back down to baseline levels in the longer term if changes are not sustained. When planning to reassess culture, it is also very important to obtain high survey response rates. Otherwise, it will not be clear whether changes in survey results over time are due to true changes in attitudes or are caused by surveying different staff each time.

Step #7: Share What Works

In step #6, you tracked measures to identify which changes result in improvement. Once your hospital has found effective ways to address a particular area, the changes can be implemented on a broader scale to other departments within the hospital and to other hospitals. Be sure to share your successes with outside hospitals and health care systems as well.

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Page last reviewed March 2014
Page originally created March 2014
Internet Citation: Chapter 8. What's Next?. Content last reviewed March 2014. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. https://www.ahrq.gov/sops/databases/hospital/2014/ch8.html
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