Aligning for accountable care: Strategic practices for change in accountable care organizations

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Abstract

Background:

Alignment within accountable care organizations (ACOs) is crucial if these new entities are to achieve their lofty goals. However, the concept of alignment remains underexamined, and we know little about the work entailed in creating alignment.

Purpose:

The aim of this study was to develop the concept of aligning by identifying and describing the strategic practices administrators use to align the structures, processes, and behaviors of their organizations and individual providers in pursuit of accountable care.

Approach:

We conducted 2-year qualitative case studies of four ACOs that have assumed full risk for the costs and quality of care for defined populations.

Findings:

Five strategic aligning practices were used by all four ACOs. Informing both aligns providers’ understandings with the goals and value proposition of the ACO and aligns the providers’ attention with the drivers of performance. Involving both aligns ACO leaders’ understandings with the realities facing providers and aligns the policies of the ACO with the needs of providers. Enhancing both aligns the operations of individual provider practices with the operations of the ACO and aligns the trust of providers with the ACO. Motivating aligns what providers value with the goals of the ACO. Finally, evolving is a metapractice of learning and adapting that guides the execution of the other four practices.

Practice Implications:

Our findings suggest that there are second-order cognitive (e.g., understandings and attention) and cultural (e.g., trust and values) levels of alignment, as well as a first-order operational level (organizational structures, processes, and incentives). A well-aligned organization may require ongoing repositioning at each of these levels, as well as attention to both cooperative and coordinative dimensions of alignment. Implications for research and practice are discussed.

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