Surgical Quality Improvement   1 comment

A man visits a surgeon about a lipoma (usually a benign glob of fat) on his arm that has been aesthetically bothering the patient for a number of years. The surgeon assesses the lipoma and rules out any concerning other health problems. The man is booked for surgery three weeks later. The patient arrives on-time to an outpatient surgery center for the removal of the lipoma. This patient checks in at the front desk and is guided back to the preoperative assessment area. There, the surgeon and anesthesiologist consent the patient for the procedure, start an IV, and ask the patient and his personal friend to say there goodbyes. Shortly thereafter, the patient is brought to the OR and sedated for the procedure. The case goes off without a hitch, and two hours later the patient is comfortably recovering from the effects of the sedative before being taken home by his friend. His wound heals well, the tissue removed during surgery is found to be benign, and he is formally released from the surgeon’s care at a follow-up appointment two weeks later.

This vignette represents a stylized “perfect” surgical encounter. All the various processes necessary to move from diagnosis of surgical disease to remediation of the condition proceed apace without incident. What happens in real life? In more than a few cases, one of the many steps above has a seemingly minor logistical hiccup that ultimately causes far too many resources to be devoted to this individual patient’s care. Sometimes these issues pass without the patient even aware of a problem. For example, it is not uncommon that a patient is brought to an operating room and sedated but the surgical team is not yet available to start the case. Other times, the patient’s entire memory of the encounter is shaped by the issue. It is not unheard of that a patient arrives for surgery and finds that because of paperwork errors he or she was not scheduled for surgery. In the best of cases, the patient has to wait a few hours before being squeezed in. Unfortunately, sometimes the patient is asked return at a later date for the procedure which of course requires the patient finding a new window in his busy schedule that can accomodate such a visit. Regardless of whether the patient is aware of the problem or not, these logistical errors greatly increase the resources and time needed to meet the healthcare needs of a population.

In the U.S., a seminal report by the Institute of Medicine (the profession’s pantheon) in 2001 radically accelerated the industry’s adoption of product quality and operations management practices from other industries. A practical example of this was many of the “cost containment” issues that were discussed — but largely not included — in the 2010 U.S. healthcare reform legislation. For example, the original legislation included powerful politically independent panels of experts (a la the 9/11 Commission) that would provide evidence-based – rather than expert-opinion – recommendations for the highly politicized but necessary changes to align Medicare reimbursement policies with cost-effective care.

Within surgery communities, there seems to be a rather large divide between institutions and programs that “get it” and are willing to spend the administrative resources to address these operational inefficiencies and those who fail to recognize the magnitude of these problems or see no solution from them.

The part of surgery’s newfound interest in “quality improvement”  that is of greatest importance to me is exploring the incremental changes we can make to healthcare processes to prevent the small process problems noted above that ultimately weigh heavily on the costs of healthcare. I specifically am looking at using process mapping and decision analysis tools to question existing healthcare operations through a patient-centered perspective.

What we are trying to do in quality improvement is identify systems (e.g., patient management systems), products (e.g., mobile software), and services (e.g., nursing hotlines), that help us provide healthcare that is more comprehensive but also cheaper than existing practices. The burden that currently weighs on those of us working in this field is developing and testing these new methods of providing care in a way that convincingly demonstrates results with which we can act on.

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One response to “Surgical Quality Improvement

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  1. Pingback: Strange Bedmates: Global Health and Quality Improvement « Blue Oceans for Health

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