Innovations in healthcare in recent years have resulted in profound improvements in the quality of healthcare services as well as the manner in which they are delivered. One of the more important factors that has been shown to contribute to improved quality of healthcare services is the willingness to share knowledge among healthcare practitioners. To identify what factors serve to improve or detract from effective knowledge management practices, this paper reviews five relevant peer-reviewed studies concerning knowledge management in healthcare settings, followed by an assessment of the significance of the findings that resulted, as well as a summary of the research and potential topics for future research in this area.
Importance of Knowledge Management (KM) in Healthcare
Although knowledge management is an important element in almost any organizational setting, effective and efficient knowledge management practices in healthcare settings can spell the difference between life and death as well as the overall quality of care that is provided. A growing body of evidence suggests that people are more willing to share what they know under certain circumstances, but may be reluctant or unwilling to do so in others. To identify the optimal conditions for knowledge sharing practices in healthcare organizational settings, this paper delivers a review of the relevant peer-reviewed literature to provide a background and overview of knowledge management and to identify five studies of knowledge management practices in healthcare settings. An evaluation of the significance of the findings that emerged from this literature review is followed by a summary of the research and potential topics for future research.
Background and Overview
Although most organizations are quick to point out that their human resources are their most valuable capital asset, it is reasonable to suggest that knowledge represents an enormously valuable asset for any type of organization as well. For instance, according to Chatzkel (2003), "The ability to leverage knowledge to create value has grown significantly since the 1980s, with much of this enhanced capability tied to the rise of the disciplines of knowledge management and intellectual capital" (p. 4). It is important to distinguish information from knowledge, though, because although information is readily available in the digital age, raw information lacks context and it may be of limited value until it is converted into relevant knowledge (Zack, 1999). In sum, knowledge is validated and authenticated information that has been transformed into some type of usable form that can be readily applied to the needs of an organization (Alavi & Leidner, 2001).
Studies of Knowledge Management in Healthcare Organizations
A study by Detmer, Shortell, Caldwell and Kizer (2001) used a critical review of the literature approach to provide an overview and background of knowledge-sharing practices in healthcare organizations as well as what steps can be taken to improve these practices. According to Detmer and his associates, "In addition to being able to access patient data when and where it is needed, healthcare professionals need to be able to find and apply evidence (i.e., relevant knowledge) as part of the care process" (2001, p. 3). This fundamental need means that information of any type must be transformed into knowledge that can be readily applied to the needs of the healthcare organization. This need has also assumed new importance and relevance, Detmer et al. note, as the amount of information available to healthcare providers has increased in recent years due in large part to innovations in telecommunications technologies. Many healthcare practitioners, though, may lack the expertise and skills needed to convert raw information into usable knowledge, particularly given the enormous amounts of scientific data that are being circulated in the healthcare literature (Detmer et al., 2001).
For the purpose of their study, Detmer and his colleagues define knowledge management as "Efforts to capture, share, and deploy both tacit and explicit knowledge to meet specified goals" (2001, p. 4). Likening the process of trying to distill the flood of information that healthcare providers are faced with to drinking from a fire hose, Detmer et al. also note that, "Knowledge management is becoming increasingly important to the success of organizations throughout the economy but has particular relevance in healthcare where the volume of knowledge that professionals and even patients must navigate is large and rapidly growing" (2001, p. 4).
Although knowledge management practices share some commonalities across all industries, there are some specific characteristics involved in the healthcare industry that must be taken into account by managers seeking to facilitate the knowledge-sharing process. For instance, according to Detmer and his associates, "From the perspective of the health industry, knowledge management comprises efforts to increase the knowledge base; improve knowledge dissemination mechanisms; implement or strengthen reporting or monitoring capabilities and use; and modify curricula for undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education to provide the workforce with needed skills and knowledge" (2001, p. 4). Moreover, there is a growing need for informed and efficient knowledge management practices among healthcare organizations in order to gain a competitive advantage by delivering enhanced patient-centered and customized services (Detmer et al., 2001). In response to these needs, these researchers advise healthcare managers to inculcate an organizational culture that embraces change and rewards knowledge sharing behaviors (Detmer et al., 2001).
An earlier companion study by Kovner, Elton, Billings and Short (2000) also used a comprehensive literature review to report on the current state of knowledge-sharing practices in healthcare organizations. Based on their review of a wide range of randomized clinical trials and studies of knowledge-sharing practices in healthcare organizations (approaching the level of a meta-analysis), Kovner et al. (2000) report that:
1. Little evidence has been generated about best management practices and such evidence is not widely shared;
2. Historically, healthcare organizations have lacked sufficient size and critical mass to conduct and assess applied research; and,
3. Healthcare managers lack training and experience in collaborating with health services researchers and lack commitment to the values of applied research (p. 4).
Clearly, knowledge-sharing practices in healthcare organizations represent a potential area for management focus in ways that can improve service delivery and clinical outcomes. Based on their analysis, Kovner and his associates suggest that their findings indicate that there are some steps that can be taken to facilitate knowledge-sharing practices in healthcare organizations irrespective of the focus of their services. In this regard, Kovner et al. report that, "Knowledge management will be encouraged to the extent that leaders better manage knowledge and learn from best practice and best experts [and] are able to document better organizational performance, thereby further supporting improved health system processes of decision making" (2000, p. 5).
A study by Wang, Lee, Lin and Zhuo (2007) investigated the extent to which team interaction produced positive or negative effects on team members' willingness to share knowledge levels in a tertiary healthcare setting. Pursuant to this goal, the study also examined the extent to which each of the three categories of personality (i.e., trust, personality, and aspiration type) was related to team members' willingness to share of knowledge and to evaluate these categories among members assigned to quality improvement teams (Wang et al., 2007). With respect to their rationale for the study sample, Wang et al. report, "A healthcare system was chosen to be the sample because it relies heavily upon efficient and accurate knowledge sharing among its staff" (2007, p. 250).
The researchers operationalized their variables as follows:
1. The main dimensions of the study were personality, team process, and willingness to share knowledge;
2. The three sub-dimensions of personality were: trust, personality type, and aspiration type;
3. The sub-dimensions of willingness to share knowledge were sharing of personal knowledge, sharing of learning chance, and stimulation of motivation; and,
4. The three sub-dimensions of team process were team communication, team cooperation, and team coherence (Wang et al., 2007, p. 251).
To accomplish the foregoing research purposes, the researchers used a pretest to evaluate the effectiveness of their custom survey instrument. Following the pretest, Wang and her associates mailed 240 surveys to their targeted population, with 161 being returned in time for inclusion in the data analysis; of these, seven surveys were unusable (the researchers did not indicate the reasons), for a total of 154 usable surveys representing a response rate of 64% (Wang et al., 2007). The researchers used a product-moment analytical method to analyze the results of the usable surveys and present their results in a tabular format (Wang et al., 2007).
Consistent with the findings of comparable studies cited by the authors, the results of the Wang et al. study found that trust among team members is highly correlated to their willingness to share knowledge. This finding indicates that the effectiveness of healthcare organizations can be enhanced by increased levels of trust between team leaders and team members. In this regard, Wang et al. report that, "In order to improve the effectiveness of organizations, leaders should build up trust among their staff, should reduce whatever uncertainty and unease they have to each other" (p. 251).
In addition, Wang and her associates found that team members who…