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Medical Office Survey on Patient Safety Culture 2012

Chapter 7. What's Next? Action Planning for Improvement

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 & Waclawski, 1998).

Seven Steps of Action Planning

Administering the medical office survey can be considered an "intervention," a means of educating 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. 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 medical office go beyond simply conducting a survey to realizing patient safety culture change. 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 medical office's key strengths and areas for improvement. Examine your medical office's overall percent positive scores on the patient safety culture composites and items.

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

Next, consider examining your survey data broken down by staff position.

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

After reviewing the survey results carefully, identify two or three areas for improvement to avoid focusing on too many issues at one time. Once you have identified areas for improvement, you may find the Medical Office Resource List beneficial (PDF File, 578 KB).

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 medical office shows your commitment to the survey and improvement process.

Use survey feedback as an impetus for change. However, to ensure respondent anonymity/confidentiality, it is important to report data only if there are enough respondents in a particular category or group. As a rule of thumb, reporting data is not recommended if a category has fewer than three respondents. For example, if only two people in a staff position respond, that staff position's data should not be reported separately because there are too few respondents to provide complete assurance of anonymity/confidentiality.

Summaries of the survey results should be distributed throughout the medical office in a top-down manner, beginning with senior management, administrators, and medical and senior leaders, followed by department 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 medical office. 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. Encourage and empower staff to develop 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 Will It Work Here? A Decisionmaker's Guide to Adopting Innovations (Brach, et al., 2008) to be a useful resource (available at:

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?

Identify funding, staffing, or other resources needed to implement action plans and take steps to obtain these resources, which are often fundamental obstacles hindering implementation of action plans. 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 used before, during, and after implementation of your action plan initiatives to assess the effectiveness of the 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 medical office-wide commitments being made in response to the survey results.

At this step it is important for senior medical office 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 that 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 (IHI, 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, et al., 1996) (Figure 7-1) is a pilot-study approach to change that 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 medical offices.

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 reveal 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 dropping the effort completely, try to determine why it failed and whether adjustments might be worth trying.

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 the result of 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 medical office has found effective ways to address a particular area, the changes can be implemented on a broader scale to other departments within the medical offices and to other medical offices. Be sure to share your successes with outside medical offices and health care systems as well.

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Page last reviewed October 2014
Page originally created September 2012
Internet Citation: Chapter 7. What's Next? Action Planning for Improvement. Content last reviewed October 2014. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.


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