The Double Edge Sword of Traditions

Since today is Christmas Eve in the US, I’m thinking about my favorite Christmas tradition. Every Christmas Eve for as long as I can remember we’ve done what we call the mini-dinner on Christmas Eve. Basically, it’s a bunch of bite sized food like mini pizzas, nachos, pigs in a blanket, veggie tray, cookies or some mini dessert, and of course special drink (Mix cranberry and Sprite…Yum!). I have no idea how the tradition started, but it’s something I look forward to every year.

When I got married, luckily she liked the tradition and hopped on board. Together we’ve certainly evolved the tradition. We are too lazy to make mini pizzas usually and so we just get pizza and eat it as is. Sometimes we’ll chop it into smaller slices. It’s still a finger food, so I feel like it fits. One year my wife added bacon wrapped little smokies. No need to explain why this was a great improvement on the tradition.

As I thought about this tradition, in our healthcare organizations we have a lot of traditions as well. How you onboard a new hire. The workflow of a patient through their visit or hospital stay. Those are some broader ones, but no doubt there are thousands of smaller ones that create the culture of an organization.

In many ways, these traditions can be good. They can enforce good patient safety efforts. They can ensure a high level of quality or patient experience. Healthcare is full of traditions. The simple phrase of “Do no harm” is an example of a strong, long lasting healthcare tradition.

While traditions can accomplish much good, they also come with some real downsides. When a tradition can never be changed or adapted that can often lead to an “that’s how we’ve always done it here” mentality that can be dangerous. While simplistic, imagine if I’d done that with our mini pizza tradition. We’d be stressing ourselves out over making mini pizzas rather than adapting to the situation and embracing something that’s better (ie. buying a pizza).

At the core is understanding what really matters and focusing on that rather than the tradition itself. What really mattered was time with family enjoying ourselves with something simple to eat, not the specific tradition. This often gets lost in healthcare. Especially when a tradition is so old that the people executing that tradition don’t remember or weren’t there to understand why the tradition was started in the first place. That’s when it’s great to step back and ask yourself, “Why do we always do it this way?” If you understand the answer to that question, you can better assess if it’s worth keeping around or whether it’s ok to change.

The other challenge comes when someone else enters the equation with their own traditions much like my wife did when we got married. Getting her onboard with the tradition was key or the tradition would have died an untimely death. Plus, I was open to her ideas to make the tradition better. How often do we do this with new people in healthcare? Is it my way or the highway in your organization or do you have open ears that are willing to listen to new people’s ideas to make things better? Plus, my wife has some great traditions she did that I love too. Sometimes new people are just trying to cause a stir, but often they have learnings from their experience which can improve your organization.

We all know that “how it’s always been done” is a bad feature of healthcare. Understanding why it’s always been done that way is powerful. Then, you can decide if you want to continue that “tradition”, improve it, or get rid of it all together.

What are some of your favorite holiday traditions? I’d love to hear about them in the comments. I’d love to hear the good and bad healthcare traditions you see as well.

About the author

John Lynn

John Lynn

John Lynn is the Founder of, a network of leading Healthcare IT resources. The flagship blog, Healthcare IT Today, contains over 13,000 articles with over half of the articles written by John. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 20 million times.

John manages Healthcare IT Central, the leading career Health IT job board. He also organizes the first of its kind conference and community focused on healthcare marketing, Healthcare and IT Marketing Conference, and a healthcare IT conference,, focused on practical healthcare IT innovation. John is an advisor to multiple healthcare IT companies. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can be found on Twitter: @techguy.