Conflict Management & Resolution in Healthcare

Conflict has been known to be one of the most inevitable and difficult topics in any work setting. Managing conflict is an unavoidable part of almost any career, but the distinctive nature of healthcare can make conflicts more frequent and more essential to manage than those in many other fields. According to an article written by Amy Overton and Dr. Ann Lowry, negative consequences of conflict include dysfunctional teamwork, decreased patient satisfaction, and increased employee turnover (Lowry and Overton, 2013). Conflict frequently occurs in the workplace when there are personality differences, stress, lack of proper delegation of tasks, poor communication, etc.

Conflict in a healthcare setting can result in the patient receiving sub par treatment, which in turn can cause the patient to have a below satisfactory opinion about the facility or organization. If a patient can sense tension between healthcare providers, he or she is more likely to be concerned about how these providers will approach their treatment plan. For example, differing opinions between doctors in how to approach a cancer diagnosis can cause conflict between the healthcare team and result in the patient not receiving proper care (Cox, 2018). This can also result in the patient spending unnecessary time and money on treatment that may not even be needed. In order to promote and maintain a harmonious work environment, it is crucial for healthcare organizations to incorporate conflict resolution into their expectations and/or strategic plans.

Conflicts in a healthcare setting can range from everyday disagreements to major controversies that can lead to litigation or, in rare cases, even violence. They can arise between physicians, physicians and staff, and between the staff or the health care team and the patient or patient’s family. Conflict management is about teamwork, respect, flexibility, collaboration and negotiation. Effective conflict management training programs teach people to step back and consider outcomes from the perspective of team objectives (Reece, 2014). Conflict management requires for one to be comfortable with using different types of approaches to conflict resolution.  

There are five strategies that are most commonly used for conflict management. These include accommodating, avoiding, collaborating, compromising and competing. The accommodating strategy is most commonly used when one of the parties involved in the conflict wishes to keep the peace. The result ends in the opposing side getting what they want. The avoiding strategy seeks to put off the conflict altogether. By ignoring the conflict, the avoider hopes that the problem resolves itself without a confrontation.

One intervention that has become popular in the workplace for combating conflict includes conflict management training. Many employers are incorporating trainings geared toward identifying different causes of conflict and  ways to alleviate that conflict before it causes disruption. Conflict management training can lead to better teamwork and the reduction in disciplinary and grievance. These types of trainings can be offered through consulting companies and other professional associations. When human resources departments select trainings for conflict management, they have to be sure to select those that address personality-led issues and personal differences, as these tend to be the primary cause of workplace conflict. Conflict management training can take many forms and cover various topics. It can be provided through small group facilitations, one day sessions and one-on-one sessions. It is up to the employer to decide which method is suitable for the type of conflict the organization or department experiences most frequently. Conflict management training can be necessary for those employees who exhibit passive-aggressive behaviors to those who exhibit combative behaviors, and are always involved in intense situations and have multiple complaints from other employees.   Conflict management training is a good tool to utilize when learning how to recognize and resolve conflict because it teaches employers and employees what to look for. Knowing the signs of an arising conflict helps to redirect unnecessary tension. Expectations for conflict resolution have to be established and maintained by the employer. These expectations could be outlined in the employee relations portion of a company’s strategic plan. Healthcare managers should aim to adopt a fair grievance process that includes an open-door policy. This allows employees to be able to discuss first signs of conflict with their immediate supervisor without repercussions or feeling like they are “tattling” on a co-worker. Employers should also make sure that employees, and not just managers, are responsible for resolving conflict. It is never a bad idea for employees to learn how to resolve conflict among themselves before having to always involve a supervising member of the healthcare team.

In conclusion, health care systems require effective teamwork and cooperation to properly function. Conflict management can play a critical role in healthcare delivery.  The job of healthcare managers is to deal with conflict so that it does not decrease productivity or diminish the standard of patient-centered care. As previously  discussed, conflict in a healthcare setting can negatively impact how the patient is treated. Poor treatment outcomes can lead to poor ratings of a healthcare organization. Poor ratings can lead to loss of funding, which then can lead to loss of the organization as a whole. Although conflict is generally inevitable, there are ways to effectively resolve conflict. Being conflict competent  involves being able to have difficult conversations. These conversations have to be facilitated by someone who is assertive and objective, and willing to listen to all sides. When conflict is properly addressed, healthcare organizations, employees and patients all reap the benefits.

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