26 February 2015

Improving Patient Care Through Efficient Processes

In many hospital systems, quality improvement efforts focus primarily on an outcome rather than the process that produces it. This may make sense intuitively, but experience has shown it to be the wrong strategy: in the vast majority of cases, small investments in process improvement can lead to outsize improvements in the final product.

This concept was highlighted in a recent FierceHealthcare guest post by Dr. Tom Scaletta, the Medical Director of Emergency Services at Edward Healthcare in Naperville, Illinois. In the article, Dr. Scaletta explains how a seemingly minor change to his organization’s patient follow-up processes – contacting patients immediately after discharge rather than with a mailer several days later – translated into significant improvements in patient outcomes and patient satisfaction scores. By contacting patients immediately after discharge, the hospital improved their survey response rate significantly and generated hundreds of “valuable real-time opportunities to improve patient care, reduce readmissions and understand important patient perceptions.”

Although they often sound simple, process improvements can be surprisingly difficult to implement. This is because designing and implementing improved processes requires critical thinking from the entire team, deep understanding how the current process works and buy-in from all affected employees. Overcoming these challenges and unlocking this potential for improvement is a critical function of the modern healthcare executive.

Process Improvement Systems

C-level hospital executives can’t be personally involved in driving improvement in every one of their organization’s processes – there’s simply too much to do. Instead, the executive’s role should be establishing systems that encourage process improvement and building a culture that helps employees find and implement them. This is, arguably, a much more difficult task than simply implementing, but the results are certainly worth it. Achieving the types of process improvements detailed in Dr. Scaletta’s article is much easier when such a system is in place.

Fortunately, management frameworks exist that can help healthcare organizations achieve this goal. One such is Kaizen, a methodology for continuous process improvement that was most famously implemented by Toyota. Kaizen is a powerful framework that helps employees improve and standardize processes, and it excels in clinical settings. The Kaizen approach works especially well with multi-disciplinary teams and allows for rapid implementation of new processes. Furthermore, it encourages a culture of continuous improvement as staff are encouraged to provide feedback through the entirety of a process – before, during, and after its implementation. In a nutshell, Kaizen makes processes more reliable and less wasteful while simultaneously encouraging meaningful employee involvement.

Implementation Challenges

While implementing a new process is hard in any organization, those in the healthcare industry know it is particularly challenging in a clinical setting. Buy-in, particularly among physicians and nurses, is tough to get, yet critical to success. Convening – let alone assigning importance to – opinions is equally challenging, and the energy to carry out the new process can wane over time. But such measures are necessary to develop and implement a process that works for patients and the systems in which they are treated.

As healthcare organizations look to improve processes facility-wide, it’s critical to remember the importance of a solid process improvement framework such as Kaizen. In addition to improving culture, these frameworks have been shown deliver a remarkable return on investment for the organizations that implement them. As the healthcare landscape continues to change – be it towards patient-focused care or another front – process improvement frameworks will help ensure that the industry evolves with it.

To learn more about how the Kaizen approach can improve hospital processes, visit our resource library.